I read this week that Boris Johnson has been given permission by the Queen to exercise in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. That’s nice. Can she give him permission to act like a prime minister for more than an hour a week? He could start small, then gradually build up his prime-ministering distance, so that by the time of the next election he’s doing a whole day a week. Maybe there’s an app for it. Couch To PM.
In the meantime, we’ve all seen some shameless moves by Johnson over the past few days, but let’s open a sub-category for Thursday night’s Downing Street briefing. If you missed this How Not To video, it featured the prime minister inserting himself between some perfectly reasonable questions and the scientists Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the government’s chief scientific adviser and England’s chief medical officer respectively, with Johnson acting for all the world like he’d take a bullet for them. Do me a favour. He wouldn’t even take a NutriBullet for them. He wouldn’t even read a bullet point written BY them.
Plenty of other countries with less money and much worse healthcare options have performed far more successfully than us
When Marlon Brando turned up to the set of Apocalypse Now he weighed 300 pounds (21 stone), hadn’t bothered reading Heart of Darkness – the novel on which the movie was based – and was sufficiently unfocused on the job to prefer rambling tangential discussions about the script to getting anything done. Obviously he hadn’t learned his lines – indeed, he was by now quite incapable of it – having long preferred to have cue cards positioned around his sets in ingenious positions to avoid them being picked up by the various camera angles. On some productions, Brando’s lines were even stuck to other actors’ foreheads. He was, however, literally Marlon Brando, and that rightly counted for rather a lot.
Watching Johnson playing to MPs on the liaison committee this week, it was difficult to conclude he will be able to draw much longer on a similar wellspring of tolerance for the idiosyncrasies of his craft. Of his preference for prizing Dominic Cummings more highly than his public health message, Johnson kept saying: “I have already answered a lot of questions about this.” But the only earlier answers to which he is referring were also the words: “I have already answered a lot of questions about this.” His performance was the equivalent of Brando’s Kurtz turning to the camera and gurning: “LOOK MA – THEY GONE AND LET ME DONE A MOVIE!!!” Basically a production-killer. Couldn’t someone – perhaps Cummings – stand just out of shot wearing a sign on his forehead that reads simply: “DON’T SMIRK”?
The entire effort was so abject it had the flavour of that classic domestic move where someone – might be a man, might be a lady – deliberately loads the dishwasher so sensationally, historically badly that it is a clear attempt to ensure they never are never asked to do it again.
Yet, mesmerisingly, Johnson appeared to imagine he was even in the same postcode as adequate. “The trouble is,” he complained about having to be there at all, “it does take a huge amount of Sherpa time, of preparation time.” On the one hand: oh no. Did you have to be prime minister again for an hour? I’m sorry it’s so much work. On the other hand: wait. Are you telling me that this is you WITH preparation? What does busking it look like? Presumably it involves public incontinence.
Given this level of leadership, perhaps it’s no surprise that this week saw many of Johnson’s cabinet abandoning the fiction that they possess basic social skills. I know some people like his hoodie, but for me Rishi Sunak was this week wearing the Castrol GTX jacket that was Alan Partridge’s funeral attire. “The good news we’ve all been waiting for!’ was his verdict on the reopening of 54 Nando’s outlets. Or perhaps you prefer self-styled tone policeman Matt Hancock? Asked by Sky News’ Kay Burley if his test-and-trace strategy wasn’t being rushed forward to distract from Cummings, it was an interesting choice on the health secretary’s part to laugh his way through what felt like the next decade of airtime.
Being charitable, I’d have allowed him one laugh. This particular government being told it’s doing something about the virus too quickly is certainly a total novelty, and within the disingenuous confines of political cut-and-thrust he was entitled to a flourish along the lines of: “Well, I’ve heard it all now.” Instead, Matt’s guffawing went way past even nitrous-oxide balloon level. Maybe he’s doing a sponsored laugh to raise money for the tracing system we deserve, as opposed to the one we have?
Either way I enjoy the way Hancock attempts to cover for the lack of sophistication by making his “human contact tracers” sound like they’re blade runners, who he personally is dispatching to track down biocompromised replicants who just happen to work as delivery drivers or in cafes. God knows the Johnson administration loves a whole “best of the best” angle, which is why the absurd business of having to hire 50,000 form fillers for the red-tape horrorshow that is post-Brexit trade with the EU has turned into what they like to call “the world’s first customs agent academy”, like it’s fricking Starfleet.
And yet, perhaps the government would be wise to downplay its obsession with all things “world-beating”. It would be an odd choice of phrase at the best of times, implying a sort of relish at having whupped countries with less money or worse healthcare options. But during these suboptimal times, where plenty of other countries with less money and much worse healthcare options have performed far more successfully than us, it tips over into state-sponsored delusion. The UK has the second highest rate of excess deaths from the coronavirus pandemic in the world. In the WORLD. It’s a funny sort of world-beating achievement – but it’s evidently what you get with the boy who grew up wanting to be world king.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
Guardian Newsroom: The Dominic Cummings story
On Wednesday 3 June at 7pm we’re holding a live-streamed event exploring the ongoing controversy of Dominic Cummings’ lockdown-defying road trip and the government’s handling of the ensuing fallout. With the Guardian’s deputy national news editor, Archie Bland, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland and Observer chief leader writer Sonia Sodha.
Book tickets here