On Wednesday afternoon (27th May) Boris Johnson appeared in front of the Commons Liaison Committee. A Prime Minister normally appears in front of this committee around three times a year. This was Johnson’s first appearance in front of it. To very loosely paraphrase his hero, never was so much revealed by someone saying so little to so few. I give my summary of it below. For those who would like to see the whole session you can view it here.
- Johnson was asked how much he thought the Cummings episode had undermined the moral authority of the government. He replied that he was deeply sorry for the pain and anguish people have been going through during this period – yet again no apology.
- He was asked why he had not asked the Cabinet Secretary to hold an enquiry, to which he replied that he was not certain that an enquiry was a good use of time and that we should ‘move on’ – a phrase he was to use six times during the meeting.
- When asked what advice he sought from the Cabinet Secretary or whether the Cabinet Secretary had an opportunity to ask questions Johnson brusquely said he wasn’t going to go into this matter.
- When asked if he had consulted with the cabinet before agreeing to Cummings’ Downing Street rose garden appearance (an unprecedented occurrence) Johnson refused to directly answer, saying that he thought it was ‘a very good thing’. You can only assume he didn’t consult anyone.
- Trying to deflect the continuing questions and imploring everyone to move on he said “there is a very good plan – and it’s working!” I would suggest that the highest death rate in Europe would imply that it hasn’t worked very well.
- Johnson repeated that lots of the allegations were totally false – without giving any indication which specific allegations were false. This lack of detail was raised several times by different members of the committee.
- Perhaps one of the best quotes of the meeting came from Simon Hoare, (Conservative MP for North Dorset) when he said in relation to the Cummings issue “People know what your views are, but have no idea why you hold these views”. I sensed a collective nod from all the viewers of the meeting!
- Yvette Cooper (Labour MP) said Johnson was putting political concerns ahead of public health messaging and above the national interest. Johnson responded that they had been very clear about what they wanted people to do – I suggest not clear enough for some!
- Greg Hands (Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham) enquired about whether instructions that arose from contact tracing would be advisory or mandatory. Again Johnson was unable to provide a clear answer, stating only that people ‘should’ self-isolate if they are contacted.
- Considering that I have a very low opinion of Jeremy Hunt (Conservative MP for SW Surrey and former Secretary of State for Health and Social care) I was impressed with his questioning. He asked Johnson why Germany had quarantined people entering care homes from hospital but the UK hadn’t. He also pushed Johnson on a 24 hour turnaround time on testing. Incredibly, the Prime Minister of the UK replied that he had been forbidden from announcing any more targets! When pushed further about whether this would be achieved in weeks or months he would only meekly say “as soon as possible”.
- Johnson was also pushed on ‘track and trace’ and asked why regional experts in this field had only seemingly become involved as an afterthought. He gave rather a long- winded answer but said “I’m accountable for everything” during it, which he may come to regret.
- One of the most shocking aspects of the meeting was Johnson’s response to Stephen Timms (Labour MP for East Ham) when he asked about two of his constituents who had leave to remain in the country, but no access to public funds for 10 years. You can read more about the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition here. The husband had not been furloughed and the small income from his partner did not cover their rent. Johnson seemed totally flummoxed by this question and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t apply for Universal Credit or Employment Support Allowance. For a Prime Minister to be so ignorant of this law that affects up to (he didn’t know this either) 100,000 children in the UK according to The Children’s Society is unforgivable.
- Matters didn’t improve when he was questioned by Caroline Noakes (Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North) on the disproportionately negative effect on women of the government’s policies relating to Coronavirus. These included child care issues and the lack of representation of women on the various bodies that dealt with government policy. Johnson was reduced to virtually incoherent waffle as he desperately looked off camera for guidance – presumably from Cummings. If it was Cummings he didn’t offer any help!
- Johnson also seemed unaware that self employed income support ends from this weekend, as he blathered on about income tax deferrals and ‘bounce back’ loans.
In answer to a question about whether a full economic recovery package would be presented to Parliament before the summer recess, it was notable that he said one would be presented – but not confirming the date when this would take place. Perhaps an innocent omission, perhaps not.
- Johnson was questioned why quarantining was being introduced now rather than at the beginning of the pandemic. He responded by saying the government was following scientific advice. It was pointed out that between 1,000 and 10,000 people arrived in the UK from Spain and Italy in those early weeks, countries where Coronavirus was at high levels. This is likely to be one aspect of the government decision making that will be closely scrutinised in the inevitable enquiry to follow. Further to this Johnson stated that the scientific advice that guided this decision would be published in due course – without giving a deadline for its publication. Those waiting for the ‘Russia Report’ (an enquiry into Russian interference in UK democracy) will be familiar with the lack of clarity.
- Johnson would not make any form of commitment to appearing again before the committee prior to the summer recess, citing as the reason “the huge amount of preparation time” required. Going by his performance and his complete lack of grasp of details, little preparation was undertaken prior to this meeting – and any that was carried out was clearly wasted as he floundered under close scrutiny.
It was actually quite distressing to see the Prime Minister of the UK so clearly out of his depth and wilting under what was challenging, but perfectly reasonable cross examination. It did reveal why Johnson is so keen to keep Cummings, no matter what the consequences – he obviously totally relies on him to ‘do the detail’ which so clearly is of no interest to Johnson.
His undeniable charm has got him so far, indeed to the very top. However, people are judged on how they deal with adversity, not how they deal with success. In this regard he has proved to be sorely lacking. The burden of the highest office already seems to be weighing heavy upon his shoulders and his response to the Coronavirus pandemic is set to define his Premiership. With further difficulties ahead will he see the game as one worth playing?