It wasn’t the results in last week’s elections that niggled. Nor was it that he had made a bit of an idiot of himself by effectively being forced to promote Angela Rayner just hours after he had tried to sack the deputy leader as party chair for her part in running such a rubbish campaign. Only the Labour party could turn a reshuffle into surrealist performance art. Not least by elevating some MPs to shadow cabinet positions for which there was no government equivalent. Anyone for the Ministry of Silly Walks?
What really hurt Keir Starmer was that the Tories couldn’t even be bothered to make fun of the shitshow. Anything was better than being ignored. It was one thing for Labour to be ignored by the country; quite another for the main opposition party to be an irrelevance to the government. Throughout the day the Conservatives used every opportunity to avoid intruding on Starmer’s private grief.
For just about the first time anyone could remember, Boris Johnson remained firmly on topic as he – along with Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance – held a press conference to announce that all systems were go for the third stage of the easing of lockdown restrictions in a week’s time on 17 May. Six people from two different households would be allowed to meet up indoors; hotels, B&Bs, bars and restaurants would reopen for indoor service; and even some judicious hugging would be allowed.
Unusually, there were also no signs of gloating in the prime minister’s opening remarks. No triumphalist reminders that though he had set out a roadmap out of lockdown based on data not dates, the dates he had picked had turned out to be the right ones all along. Perhaps the message from his advisers that boasting is a bad look has finally sunk in. Maybe Boris can’t even quite believe his luck that the vaccine programme has been so effective and that he has finally got something right after all last year’s mistakes that cost many thousands of lives
Or perhaps he is having second thoughts about the country being ready for its final return to normality on 21 June. That certainly seemed the most likely as Johnson was asked if he might consider bringing forward the June date if the data allowed. Absolutely not, the prime minister said. This third stage was a significant relaxation of the regulations and it was important to proceed cautiously. A word normally anathema to Boris.
There was also a change in the use of language. Previously he has always spoken of the irreversibility of the easing of lockdown regulations. Now he introduced the qualifier “hopefully”. Earlier in the year, we had been offered a roadmap set in stone. Now we were being warmed up for the possibility of another lockdown later in the year. An idea Whitty was keen to reinforce. Things can come out of a blue sky, he said. Although the present variants seemed to respond well to the vaccines, there was always the possibility of a mutant strain that didn’t. In which case all bets were off.
So which people were the prime minister keenest to hug first, asked ITV’s Romilly Weeks. For the first time, Johnson looked mildly uncomfortable. “Whoever I hug will be done with caution and restraint,” he said defensively. Advice that he hoped others would follow. Nor would he commit to whether he would be shaking hands with anyone. Still, it would be nice one day to get an eye-witness account from a visitor to his Number 10 flat to find out if the money spent on the Lulu Lytle soft furnishings was good value.
For much of the rest of the presser, Boris was content to either repeat himself or prevaricate. He had had some wonderful conversations with the leaders of the devolved administrations and they had all agreed that the most important thing was to get Covid sorted. From “Get Brexit Done” to “Get Covid Done”. Weirdly, the subject of independence didn’t come up once. “I know, I know,” he had said. It had taken him by surprise too. But there we were. He had been only too happy to talk about independence only Nicola had never mentioned it. So he had thought it best to keep off the subject.
The final question was on Tuesday’s day’s Queen’s speech. How come the government were planning to introduce photographic voter ID, when voter fraud had never been a big issue in British elections. There had been just one instance at the last general election. So could it possibly be because Labour voters were less likely to have photographic ID and therefore would be unable to participate in elections? Absolutely not, Johnson insisted. That was an outrageous suggestion. Labour voters were now an endangered species and he had always been committed to wildlife conservation.
Boris checked his notes and wrapped things up quickly. It had been tempting to make more fun of Labour’s troubles, but he had been assured it was far more damaging for the opposition to be ignored and be seen to be talking to itself. And besides, he had dodged a bullet. No one had mentioned his Mustique holiday, which was now being investigated by the parliamentary standards commissioner.