SSixteen months ago we probably would have rolled our eyes if Boris Johnson, a man who does not even take personal responsibility for an unknown number of his own children, told us to take “personal responsibility.” But that was then, and these days we just have to let it wash over us like a waterfall in a shampoo ad.
There was certainly a powerful cascade around Monday, as the prime minister explained that it was now or never for the opening. Faced with this false opposition, who would not choose “now”? I really like the “now” as the moment when everything goes away, and we return to a prelapsary world in which the government that was wrong in almost everything, practically all the time, simply leaves our lives. The only lingering concern, I suppose, is the possibility that the government that was wrong on almost everything is wrong on this as well, and that means they’ll be right back in our business in the fall. .
Not that I don’t want my hot summer firewall. I’m afraid I’m the type of personality who hears the new government buzzword “summer firewall” and thinks reflexively: well, I need to have THE best summer firewall possible. I want to drink Summer Firebreaks; I want to rip off his summer fire pants. And when everything goes crazy and I’m staring at the barrel of fall restrictions / civic riot, I’ll write an elegiac song about how amazing everything was now that it’s gone, probably called Summer Firebreak. A bit like Don Henley’s Boys of Summer, but with more Wayfarers.
Wherever you are in my summer firewall dreams you may be absolutely joking with them, I suspect I’m not entirely alone in feeling. Which made it even more absurd to hear Johnson solemnly intoning, “This is not a time to cheer up the Democrats.” Oh, come on. Have you ever met people? Especially the English, the people to whom his supposedly sobering statements apply? This looks a bit like the time last September, when both the boffins and Dido Harding were apparently surprised by the totally predictable explosion in demand for tests once schools and colleges returned. Because they are so? Why are they constantly amazed by the real world?
Regardless, Monday night’s big announcement took place in Downing Street’s £ 2.9 million meeting room, which from its inception has felt like a doomed way of raising the tone of what’s going on inside it. For a player with Johnson’s Covid success rate, it’s like donning a tux to the bookmakers and ruining the cleanup. Needless to say, the room remains empty. Once journalists are able to present themselves in person at this facility after July 19, I imagine there will suddenly be no more press conferences, in a disturbing case of Jungian synchronicity. Similarly, the return to full parliamentary democracy, suspended to the detriment of absolutely everyone except the government, will take place just three days before parliament dissolves for the summer recess. Funny how the scrutiny continues to work. Fortunately, the government keeps promising that this July 19 date is “a term”, so there is no way it will close everything again shortly after its return in the fall.
And yet is it a term? With the exception of a very small number of weirdos that seem to subconsciously enjoy the sad drama of the Covid era, we all obviously look forward to it. But the answer, at best, seems “unlikely.” Either way, and even after all his broken pandemic promises thus far, there’s something fascinating about Johnson’s inability to tell the unadorned truth about it at this stage. The prime minister simply cannot be honest with people that this is a gamble. Despite all your overpromises and poor deliveries, you are still hesitating about termination and irreversibility – you are still writing checks that you may not be able to cash. Johnson loves being held hostage to fortune so much that I think he has Stockholm syndrome.
For me, the most troubling part of the press conference was the moment when Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance refused to answer a sensible question about what the hospitalization and death models were showing. Johnson, of course, was too cowardly to take the lead and respond. But why? Why are we not allowed to know the answer to that now? Why is this data secret, at least until next week? You can’t tell people to take responsibility and then show that you consider them too stupid or whatever to have all the information available to do so. But the official government policy is clearly obscurantist: When asked again Tuesday morning about what the model was showing, Sajid Javid only replied: “We have several models that we look at internally.”
Presumably one of their favorite models to watch is titled “Ball Unmasked,” because the strange decision to start a destructive fight over wearing masks must also be rooted in some kind of perceived positive outcome for them. I’m afraid the damage here has already been done, but it really didn’t have to. Unfortunately, this is an administration that always tends to over-emotionalism when it would suffice to simply be practical.
As for the idea that power is about to be voluntarily handed over by the government and humbly returned to the people… that feels a bit too convenient, under such exceptional circumstances. Johnson can carry on with personal responsibility as long as he wants, but he will have to take something on himself. What unfolds over the next few weeks and months should depend on the leader, not the people he leads. People can only do so much, and the problem has never been people’s lack of faith in the things the prime minister said. People wanted to believe Johnson’s promise that we would “flatten the curve” in 12 weeks; people wanted to believe that he would “be back to normal at Christmas”; people wanted Christmas to be “saved” by Johnson; people wanted to believe that the blows meant that we could go back to normal by Easter; and people, understandably, now want to believe that his promise that this is all “irreversible” and that July 19 is a “term.” So that’s what it tells you.
And so there are masses of normal people – who, understandably, don’t spend half their lives online about politics – who now think that July 19 is absolutely an end. How they will react in the future if it turns out not to be anyone’s guess. I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better, even for Johnson’s own political luck, to at least warn people that the term might not turn out to be the term at all.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism