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Philip Collins: Between the extremes

Wednesday 24 February 2021

A former Number 10 speechwriter gives his assessment of the prime minister’s Monday evening address

Good evening, and thank you very much for joining us. Our extraordinary NHS has now succeeded in vaccinating more than 17.7 million people across the UK and nearly a year after this pandemic began, this unparalleled national effort has decisively shifted the odds in our favour, so that we no longer have to rely simply on lockdowns and restricting our behaviour and putting our lives on hold, but with every day that goes by, this programme of vaccination is creating a shield around the entire population. Which means that we’re now travelling on a one-way road to freedom, and we can begin safely to restart our lives and to do it with confidence.

The only part of a public health crisis that a government can truly control is how they speak about it. Ministerial communication has been highly moveable, though not a feast. The prime minister’s tone was wrong in his early addresses. Shorn of anything optimistic to say but determined to be characteristically optimistic he blustered through those first press conferences, offering nothing but empty hopes which had the effect of raising and heightening the alarm. 

The realisation that his performances were poor, and the stark and terrible facts of the pandemic itself, have produced an opening of this kind, which is considerably more sober. It reads better than it sounded. It is written with a balance between optimism and pessimism and the uplifting concluding sentence is safely grounded in the preceding facts. Yet our knowledge of the speaker, and his previous incarnation as a minor character in a Flashman novel, means the sobriety in these remarks is the notable feature. 

The last sentence is one hostage to fortune, the one flourish in the whole address. A one-way road to freedom. It is notable that Johnson does not risk a vivid metaphor. Even at his most rhetorical, this is consciously flat.  

And I want to be frank about exactly what that means and the trade-offs involved. The vaccine has reduced the danger of Covid, they save lives, and they keep people out of hospital. But no vaccine against any disease has ever been 100 per cent effective. So, whenever we ease the lockdown, whether it’s today, or in six or nine months, we’ve got to be realistic, and accept that there will be more infections, more hospitalisations and therefore, sadly, more deaths, just as there are every year with flu. Even if we sustain the lockdown indefinitely, which would itself cost lives and do immeasurable harm to our children, we would not be able to eradicate this disease.

These are the terms of the debate and also the positions struck by the advocates of either side, both of whom Johnson is trying to placate. In one ear he has the advice of the scientists, the caution of the public and his own fear of a rising death toll. In the other ear he has the interest of business voiced loudly by his backbenchers with less than subtle encouragement from the chancellor. After months without a strategy, which always makes communication impossible, the prime minister can at last be clear. 

This is a general lesson. Most communication failures are not really failures of rhetoric or writing. They are failures of strategy. The prime minister used to speak poorly because he had nothing to say. It is easy to be clear when you have a case to make. The existence of the vaccine has allowed Johnson to put on a new guise – the reasonable man balancing more extreme demands.

We will be led at every stage by data, not dates, and we will apply four tests: the pace of the vaccination programme, the effectiveness of the vaccines, the pressure on the NHS, and the risks of any new variants of covid. And therefore as we look at the data today I can confirm that two weeks from today, Monday 8 March, we will begin Step 1, and schools and colleges across England will reopen and teaching in classrooms can start again. All the evidence shows that schools are safe and the risk posed to children by Covid is vanishingly small…  And then, we’ll go onto Step 2 which is no earlier than 12 April, and this is a big moment because shops will return and reopen, hairdressers, nail salons will reopen, pubs and restaurants will all be able to serve customers outside… And then, five weeks after that, no earlier than 17 May, we’ll go to Step 3, and open all our hospitality sector to service indoors – pubs, bars restaurants, along with hotels and cinemas…  And finally, provided we can continue to pass the four tests, then from 21 June, we will go to Step 4, and say goodbye to most remaining restrictions….. 

The alliteration of data not dates is one of the few conscious rhetorical figures in the address. It is only slightly undermined by his decision to follow  it with a series of dates, although the curious phrasing of “no earlier than…” allows him a great deal of room to wriggle. The use of a step programme rather casts the nation as recovering alcoholics, which, given how long there is still to go, may well be right. 

There is also a little note of populism smuggled in here. The range of shops that will be able to open outside on 12 April is quite large but “hairdressers and nail salons” get a special mention. It is hard to believe the prime minister ever imagined, when he coveted the job, that one day he would find himself live on television specifying the opening times of nail salons. If he had not won the post-Brexit electoral victory he did, he might not have been so keen to be the guy who reopened the nail salons.

All of these steps will apply in England, and the government will continue to do whatever it takes to protect jobs and livelihoods across our whole United Kingdom for the duration of the pandemic. And I know there are some who would like to accelerate the timetable, and I know of course there are others who would like to be more cautious, and stay in the slow lane, and I understand both points of view and I sympathise, because levels of infection are still high, and we must strike a very careful balance, and always accept that we’ve got to be humble in the face of nature… It’s thanks to the rollout of these vaccinations, many of them pioneered in this country, that the balance of that judgement is now changing in our favour, and thanks to the vaccinations, that there is light ahead, leading us to a spring and a summer which I think will be seasons of hope, looking and feeling incomparably better for us all, and from which we will not go back.

And perhaps incomparably better for him. Lost in the fog of the pandemic is the fact that a rhetorically novel Boris Johnson has been forged. The reaction to the announcement will be all about timing. Too fast for some, too slow for others. We are too locked into positions to note what might be the most enduring aspect of this address. The prime minister that spoke on Monday night effectively melded facts into a sober style which conveyed an optimism that is, finally, under-stated. He placed himself as the reasonable man, between the two extremes. 

There is a lesson here which is that if you have a character as a speaker – Johnson does and it is an asset – then it will always be on display. Johnson does not need to script optimism because he conveys it. He needs, and has always needed, to script sobriety and gravity which, to put it mildly, he does not have by nature. Events have imposed a gravity of their own and the combination is actually quite impressive. Johnson has made a litany of documented mistakes in this pandemic and they have cost lives. But as a speaker he has found a mood here which will serve him well if he has the wisdom to find it again. 

He should have used his years in office as Mayor of London to grow up as a politician, but he didn’t. The pandemic may have aged him and, if he is minded to be more serious, this last section is the template. There is a grand nature versus science theme buried in this passage, but Johnson is not too tempted by it. He sticks to a tight script. Optimism grounded in facts: it could be a formidable combination.