Tuesday 17 November 2020
Fear, delays, mistakes and recrimination. On 31 October, we looked to Boris Johnson’s government for certainty – they served up a nightmare
By Matthew d’Ancona
Editors: Peter Hoskin, Ceri Thomas
Producers: Tom Kinsella, Matt Russell
Additional reporting: Chris Cook, Claudia Williams
[Boris Johnson: Look, I’m afraid no responsible prime minister can ignore the message of those figures. And when I told you two weeks ago that we were pursuing a local and regional approach to tackling this virus, I believed then, and I still believe passionately, that was the right thing to do.]
… that is the sound of a prime minister making a screeching U-turn.
Early evening, Saturday 31 October, and Number Ten was staging a very unusual kind of show for Halloween, broadcast live to the nation, just before Strictly Come Dancing… but with no real choreography, and no sense of timing whatsoever.
In most parts of the United Kingdom, trick or treating and other traditions had been discouraged this year because of Covid restrictions.
But who needs sweets, pumpkins and apple-bobbing when an audience of 13m viewers can watch the real horror movie of a government having a nervous breakdown live on television?
A Whitehall farce, directed by Quentin Tarantino.
[Boris Johnson: From Thursday until the start of December, you must stay at home. You may only leave home for specific reasons, including education, for work, let’s say if you cannot work from home, for exercise and recreation outdoors with your household…]
Remember: in the weeks before, ministers had positively scorned the idea of a second national lockdown.
[Boris Johnson: We on the other hand, want to go on with our commonsensical approach which is a local and a regional approach…]
[Dominic Raab: We don’t want to create a second national lockdown.
I think people would feel it was not only counterproductive or ineffective, but desperately unfair… for measures to be imposed across the board.
Interviewer: And Labour want to see this two to three weeks circuit breaker to give us some breathing space to go on top of Test and Trace. People want to know is that gonna happen?
Dominic Raab: No.]
And yet here was the prime minister, flanked by Professor Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, its chief scientific adviser, proposing to do exactly what he said he and his colleagues had repeatedly said they wouldn’t: that is, impose a national lockdown until Wednesday 2 December.
I’m Matt d’Ancona, and this is a story about much more than pandemic restrictions.
It’s a tale of 24 hours of political mayhem in the sweaty rooms of Number Ten; of a government paralysed by political tensions and strategic disunity; of media mismanagement on a cosmic scale; and of what can only be described as a data disaster.
24 hours that ended up with the nation – or, to be precise, England – being shut down for the second time in a year.
24 hours of bedlam that lit a fuse – a fuse that led to the explosive resignations last week of Lee Cain as Downing Street director of communications, and of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s closest adviser.
24 hours of infantile bickering and faction-fighting that – as the total number of deaths from Covid headed toward the bleak milestone of 50,000 – the nation could ill afford.
24 hours, in fact, that captured with almost poetic clarity the fault-lines in this dysfunctional government.
I’ve spoken to 20 ministers, advisers, scientists and others familiar with those fateful hours to establish what was really happening – and why it went so wrong.
So let’s start at the beginning, or just before the story truly erupted.
Late morning, Friday, 30 October, and rumours were already beginning to swirl round Westminster that a tightening of restrictions might be on its way. The familiar fizz of media speculation started to be heard on social media and in WhatsApp chatter.
At 11:42am, Sky’s deputy political editor, Sam Coates, posted a Twitter thread, based on a nugget in a Times column by the Spectator’s well-informed political editor, James Forsyth – to the effect that another national lockdown might be just around the corner.
Now James, who was a colleague of mine when I edited that fine magazine, has always had great sources of his own.
But since his wife, Allegra Stratton, was appointed head of communications to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and then promoted to be the first White House-style on-camera spokesperson for Number Ten – a role she is due to start fully in the New Year… well, you can imagine how every word James writes is scoured for deeper meaning.
Sam Coates did just that, tweeting in frustration about the mixed messages on lockdown: “Either someone is exaggerating the government’s position,” he wrote, “or the top of government isn’t being straight with everyone”.
True enough. The drip-drip continued – at 2pm an unnamed source on the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, briefed reporters that it was “not too late to save Christmas” if a month-long lockdown were introduced in England.
An hour later SAGE papers were released showing that on 14 October – that is, a full 16 days before – the group had warned the government that up to 74,000 people might soon be infected every day in England alone, far beyond the previous “worst case scenario”.
And so, at 3:30pm on Friday 30 October, a crisis meeting of the Covid Quad was convened in Downing Street, supposedly to bring some order to what looked like becoming an unholy mess.
The Covid Quad is the star chamber of the UK’s pandemic response strategy: the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove, the powerful Cabinet Office minister.
Some of the accounts of this meeting have implied it was four men, squaring up around a baize poker table under a naked light bulb.
To quote Hamilton, you did indeed have to be in “the room where it happened”. But it wasn’t just the top four ministers: a rolling cast of between 15 and 20 people were in the room as the debate continued for somewhere between an hour and two hours.
As one Cabinet source put it to me: “Everyone seems to think it was this inner sanctum, and only the four top guys knew what was going on. In fact there were people coming in and out. And the meetings sort of carried on in all sorts of shapes and sizes afterwards. It wasn’t one single crunch moment.”
What is not in doubt is the lousy atmosphere. As one person familiar with every stage of the negotiations puts it: “On the surface, it was all courteous enough. But there was a lot of personal history in the room, a lot of tensions that have deepened during the pandemic. You felt at any moment that it might turn into the crappiest pub fight in the history of the world.”
The divisions were familiar enough. On the one side, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove argued that – as in March, when the first lockdown was imposed – the NHS might soon be overwhelmed by the increasing pressure of coronavirus admissions.
There was melodramatic talk of hospitals having to employ security muscle to turn patients away, of ice rinks being converted into morgues… a moral and political nightmare.
In the other corner was Rishi Sunak, who wanted to know if the inevitable economic cost of another national lockdown – and the more immediate price to the Treasury in extended rescue measures – were really justified.
“Rishi was relatively restrained,” says one observer, “but you could tell from his body language that he was super-tense, at the very end of his rope.”
In fact, to get a sense of his objections, let’s jump forward a few days to his statement to the House of Commons on Thursday 5 November: fireworks night, appropriately enough.
This speech was intended to signal as clearly as possible his opposition to the lockdown – without doing so explicitly. And it’s worth taking time to listen to sections of it to get a sense of quite how furious the Chancellor was, and remains.
Rishi Sunak’s first objection was that Matt Hancock and Dido Harding had messed up Test and Trace and that he, the Chancellor, was now left to pick up the pieces.
[Rishi Sunak: I have had to make rapid adjustments to our economic plans as the spread of the virus has accelerated. I would like to take this opportunity to explain how and why this has happened. During the summer, as we began slowly unlocking, it was our hope that the country would continue to be economically open, albeit with local restrictions being put in place as and when needed.]
What Sunak is saying is that he put in place an economic rescue package, but one that depended upon Hancock doing his bit and the Test and Trace strategy, combined with regional lockdown, being implemented effectively.
[Rishi Sunak: We knew there would likely be a resurgence in the spread of the virus, but with increased NHS capacity and Test and Trace, our belief was that we would be able to stay ahead of the virus. On this basis, we designed an economic approach which continued providing wage support to people, incentivised businesses to retain staff beyond the end of the furlough scheme, and created new job-creation and training schemes such as kickstart – all built to support an economy that was broadly open but operating with restrictions and overall lower demand. At the time, this approach was not Government acting alone. Our proposals secured wide-ranging support, from the TUC to the CBI. It was their hope, as it was ours, that the public health situation would allow us to keep businesses and workplaces open.]
In other words, the plan should have worked. But, as Sunak makes quite clear, it didn’t…
[Rishi Sunak: The virus, however, continued to spread. Localised restrictions were having an impact, and so we intensified this approach and added further areas. As these restrictions intensified, the economic impact, particularly on industries such as the hospitality sector, was significant, so in response we altered our approach to wage support, making it much more generous to employers and in turn protecting jobs. We also introduced a range of grants to businesses, whether open or closed, to help them meet their fixed costs, and additional funding for local authorities to respond to specific local economic challenges.I will leave it to the people of this country to decide whether they believe the Government is trying its best to support people through an unprecedented crisis, to decide whether it is a good or bad thing to alter our economic plans as the health restrictions we face change.]
Ouch. In other words: you be the judge of whether this daft plan is worth it, folks.
Second, the Chancellor wanted everyone to know that the new lockdown came with a heavy price tag. Here he is, responding to Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the Commons Treasury select committee:
[Rishi Sunak: The Office for Budget Responsibility are one of our pre-eminent forecasters, and what they are forecasting already is that the economy falls by about 10 per cent this year, that unemployment will reach 12 per cent – an increase of 2.5m people – and that in the medium term our economy will suffer scarring of about 3 per cent, which represents tens of billions of pounds of less economic output. And indeed he will, of course, also know the impact that this is having on our public finances. That is the situation as it exists today, before we enter the new set of restrictions, obviously that will cause additional stress on all the numbers that I have outlined to him, and he will have seen the Bank of England’s comments this morning that the duration of further restrictions will increase their impact of long-term scarring on the economy.]
And just to hammer home the point, here’s Rishi Sunak telling Tory MP Peter Bone that yes, indeed, he was being compelled to borrow too much:
[Rishi Sunak: In the short term, we are paying for this through extensive borrowing. He will see that this year our debt-to-GDP will rise to roughly 100 per cent. We are also carrying a significant ongoing borrowing requirement, that is evident in the forecasts that have been seen. That is not a sustainable situation.]
Let’s return to Friday 30 October and that very tense Quad meeting. As one senior source puts it: “It was clear that Rishi wasn’t going to fall into the trap of being the money guy who resigns because preventing deaths is too pricey. But everyone in the room could tell that the possibility of resignation was now a real one.”
How easy it is to forget that, when he was appointed Chancellor in February in succession to Sajid Javid, Sunak was widely portrayed as a Number Ten stooge. But in the intervening months he had accumulated his own political capital, and was now a force to be reckoned with – and Boris Johnson knew it.
To compound the PM’s dilemma, the idea of a new lockdown offended his own libertarian instincts – his lifelong love of having his cake and eating it.
More to the point, it also offended his desire not to look like a prat, having been so unambiguously opposed to such a measure in recent weeks – and handing his enemies, notably the Labour leader, such a political gift.
As one Johnson ally told me: “Even as they were talking, Boris could just imagine Keir Starmer’s motionless hair as he headed the ball into the back of the net.”
Still, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove kept up the pressure. Debt was bad, but deaths were worse. Local lockdowns were helping but not enough, they contended. A second national shutdown was a temporary measure, and schools and universities would stay open this time.
The focus of the meeting might have been upon the drug that has been reducing Covid fatalities: dexamethasone. But really it was all about testosterone, and who had most.
According to one of the government’s scientific advisers: “There’s nothing more wearying than watching Conservatives pretending to like each other through gritted teeth. Every time Hancock or Sunak insists that they actually really get on, a fairy dies.”
This poundland machismo set the tone for all that was to follow. But it also had immediate, and very important effects.
The centrepiece of the meeting was a presentation given by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance based on the modelling that they and their colleagues in the scientific community had been working on.
The figure that gripped everyone’s attention had been arrived at by forecasters at Public Health England and Cambridge University who warned that the death toll might reach 4,000 a day by December – almost three times the previous peak of 1,445 fatalities on 8 April.
As one senior figure in the battle against the pandemic put it to me: “This was the moment to really scrutinise what was being said and press Whitty and Vallance on what they were saying. I mean… 4,000 a day? That just doesn’t make sense. We know that fewer people are dying because of better use of oxygen, clinical practice, dexamethasone. Why weren’t the scientists pressed really hard on the data?”
Why indeed? The answer seems to be threefold:
First: Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance did not make the case clearly. They were visibly fearful of being blamed for whatever decision was taken. They had learned the hard way that the phrase “guided by the science” could be used by politicians to shift responsibility for bad decisions.
Second: the senior political figures in the room were too busy sticking imaginary pins into voodoo dolls of each other to focus on forensic analysis.
Third: as a consequence, they didn’t perform the most basic task of ministerial scrutiny of the data in what all of them should have been treating as one of the most important meetings of their lives.
Again, we need to leap forward in time out of our 24 hour time-frame to see how terrible an omission this really was.
On Sunday 1 November, the Sunday Telegraph revealed that the 4,000 figure was in fact based on out of date information, and that the true forecast was closer to 1,000 – a horrific daily worst case scenario, to be sure, but not what ministers had been told.
Here’s Prof Carl Henegan, the director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, explaining on the BBC’s Today programme that the number was plain wrong:
[Prof Carl Henegan: … because mathematically it is now proven to be incorrect, particularly the 4,000 estimate of deaths that would occur in December. And why that is because it’s already about four weeks out of date. And actually Cambridge, who are doing it, the MRC unit there, have already provided updates to provide lower estimates, and them estimates are much nearer to the truth. And they have a system called nowcasting and forecasting where it’s much nearer to the correct data. As an example, what the model for weeks ago was showing about 1,000 deaths on 1 November and actually only 200 actually occurred…
But by then the stat, so to speak, was long out of the bag.
Here’s Chris Whitty squirming with embarrassment on Tuesday 3 November under cross-examination by Greg Clark, the lethally well-mannered chair of the Commons science and technology select committee:
[Chair: There is particular relevance in that statistic, is there not, Professor Whitty, in that the NHS did cope with the peak last time? One must assume that we have made further improvements during the summer. And so a whole set of other choices are possible if the NHS is not going to be overwhelmed. And so the difference between 1,000 and 4,000 is quite material.
Professor Whitty: Yes. I feel slightly uncomfortable implying that this is a decision for me, the doctor advising government, to decide on 1,000 or 4,000. All I am saying in response to this question is that there has been some rather overblown rhetoric on this. People can take different projections if they wish. But getting to the stage we got to in April, and if we do nothing, carrying on up from there is entirely realistic.]
Let’s go back again to the afternoon of Friday 30 October. The Quad meeting dispersed with Boris Johnson still troubled by what was being proposed.
In the words of one Cabinet adviser: “The PM had got to 95 per cent certainty on lockdown, in the sense that he accepted the logic of what he had been told but wanted to mull over it. Maybe go to Chequers and summon a few people for final one-on-one discussions before pressing the button for a Monday announcement.”
This was naive. As was frequently pointed out to me, it takes hundreds of public servants even to prepare to operationalise a lockdown, let alone to impose one.
By the time the Quad meeting was over, WhatsApps messages and emails – authorised or otherwise – were already fizzing across Whitehall and between ministers and officials and their opposite numbers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Wales, for instance, was already half-way through its own so-called circuit-breaker national lockdown, which had begun on 23 October on the instructions of the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and was set to end on Monday 9 November.
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, had opted for a similar arrangement even earlier, beginning its own circuit-breaker lockdown on 16 October which will be lifted in phases between 20 November and 27 November.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was determined not to shift from a localised system where each of the nation’s 32 local authorities was assigned a different level – or tier – of restriction instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all lockdown.
In other words, a dis-United Kingdom.
The lesson of the first lockdown is that the simpler the measures are, the likelier they are to work.
In that spirit, the Government was always keen to present uniformity across the UK when it could.
The furlough scheme – whereby the Treasury pays 80 per cent of the wages of staff who might otherwise be made redundant, up to £2,500 per month – has now been extended to March.
Ministers emphasise time and again that this a UK-wide scheme, symbolic of the solidarity among the four nations at a time of great collective stress.
But – as Number Ten officials fretted to one another on the afternoon of 30 October, a national lockdown in England would be a recipe for horrendous complication and claims of unfair treatment – especially at the borders as families tried to cross over to see one another, or businesses tried to keep supply lines going at normal speed.
Lockdown 1 had been characterised by comprehensible uniformity. Lockdown 2 had the makings of a confused mess.
Meanwhile, inevitably, the scent of a story was reaching journalistic nostrils. In the late afternoon, Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, was driving to Dorset when he began to get a sense of what was going on.
At Sky, Sam Coates was also on the case – tweeting snippets about the Quad – as was the BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg, both picking up the direction of travel upon which the Government was now embarked.
The decision at the BBC was, correctly, that it was not yet 100 per cent clear whether Boris Johnson had made up his mind and that the nation’s public service broadcaster could not pre-announce such a momentous decision before it had actually been taken.
But the Times decided to lead its Saturday issue with the story that the prime minister was “considering” such a measure, and at 9:46pm on Friday tweeted an advance image of the next day’s front page with the forbidding headline: “National lockdown looms”. The Daily Mail did the same.
Meanwhile, this was leading the news:
[Newsreader: Tonight at 10: Covid-19 infections in England are out-stripping the government’s worst case scenario. Its advisors say numbers needing hospital care are already higher than anticipated. We’ll be asking if a national lockdown is inching closer.]
If our story has a hinge, these two front pages was it.
The decision by the two newspapers to run with the story loosened the tongues of spin doctors and removed any inhibitions other media organisations might have felt about reporting the imminent announcement.
On Saturday 31 October the BBC led its 7am news bulletin with a report on the lockdown.
[Newsreader: The government is considering imposing a month long lockdown on the whole of England; a decision could be announced within days. The rethink comes as government documents seen by the BBC suggest the UK is on course for significantly more deaths than during the first wave of the pandemic. One of these statistical models indicates more than 4,000 people could die each day unless tighter restrictions are brought in, although other projections are lower.]
Then, at 7:07am, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg tweeted the crucial detail that the Quad had been presented with a range of projections – “but one even puts daily deaths over 4,000”.
As one confidant of the prime minister puts it: “That was the key moment. Once the figure of 4,000 was in the public domain, Boris had no choice but to go ahead with the lockdown. We had moved beyond public health policy to political necessity.”
Thus began Boris Johnson’s Halloween of horror, a media pile-on matched by fury on the Conservative back benches that the government was being bounced into excessive restrictions, matched by the prime minister’s own anger that he had been denied the chance to give this huge decision proper consideration.
At 9.07am: Robert Peston tweeted a link to an ITV article claiming that the PM “appears to have made a catastrophic misjudgement” by failing to lockdown England earlier.
Too soon or too late? By this stage, Johnson was visibly apoplectic and immediately launched a leak inquiry to find out who was the so-called “chatty rat”.
[Reporter: Yes, that’s right. So in the last few moments, we’ve been told that there is a leak inquiry now happening via the cabinet secretary to look into what happened after a meeting between the chancellor, the prime minister, the health secretary and Michael Gove, the chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster. So, clearly there are some concerns about information that has come out of that meeting and the government say that they are… well, they seem to be frustrated, from what we understand, that this has come out ahead of an announcement that could have happened next week.]
To make clear how angry the prime minister was, security specialists were tasked with checking the phone data of senior ministers, and investigating more than 70 other suspects.
But there was more rage than reason in this. Most leak enquiries draw a blank, for the simple reason that most media stories are a jigsaw drawn up from multiple sources and a bit of deduction.
As one Cabinet ally of Boris Johnson’s told me: “It was transference on a massive scale. Boris wanted to stamp his authority on the government precisely because it was one of those moments when, you know, you feel things are spinning out of control.”
A Cabinet meeting was called and a snap press conference set for 4pm.
As social media and WhatsApp groups caught fire, the story was quickly framed as an example of spectacular media mismanagement. And so it was. But – as we shall see – it was much more than that.
As the prime minister clenched his fists and swore freely, nobody was sweating more than Lee Cain, his communications chief.
Lee Cain had been with Boris Johnson since the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and stuck beside him even when he was on the backbenches after his resignation as foreign secretary.
He will never be allowed to forget that as a Daily Mirror journalist he wore a chicken suit and chased David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign.
But he had come to be regarded with great respect and affection by the prime minister who liked to refer to him as “Premier Lee”.
Now Lee Cain was in serious trouble, trying to bring order to a hurricane of media speculation. But his difficulties symbolised much more than poor press management at the heart of the Johnson government.
First, he was a core member of the tough guy Brexit gang – the team that Boris Johnson had brought with him into government to make Number Ten, in effect, the new headquarters of Vote Leave.
Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain were all Brexit comrades and, as veterans of the referendum, operated as a gang. They loved to talk tough about Brussels, about leaving the EU without a trade deal, about showing brinkmanship and bottle.
Cummings, in particular, liked to give his comrades bloke-ish nicknames. Cain was “Cain-O”. Ben Gascoigne, the prime minister’s political secretary, was “Gazza”. Robert Oxley, Leave’s man at the Foreign Office, was “Roxstar”. And David Frost, the Government’s chief Brexit negotiator, was, inevitably, “Frosty”.
All this was presented as harmless laddish behaviour, but it signified much more than political loyalty.
Having won a referendum and a general election – neither achievement to be sniffed at – the Brexit gang had pretty a high opinion of themselves and were openly aggressive towards anybody they considered suspect or off-message.
Unfortunately for the smooth running of government this included 99 per cent of Whitehall officials and the overwhelming majority of MPs.
Dominic Cummings, a right-wing Trotskyite in a hoodie, regarded everything as a battle to be won, a struggle to be fought to the death. This meant that he – and Lee Cain, too – were good at campaigning but baffled by the slower, arduous, meticulous pace of government.
And, unfortunately for the Leave gang, the one thing you need in a pandemic is quite a lot of government.
As one pro-Brexit minister who had nonetheless been growing concerned by the Cummings culture put it: “Look, it’s fine to move fast and break things. Dom’s right about a lot of things. But after you break things you have to build new stuff, too. And we just haven’t done that with coronavirus.”
If the pandemic had exposed the problem of trying to govern by gang, there was also, second, a growing gender divide at the apex of Government.
In the past week, Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s partner, has been widely accredited with Lee Cain’s eventual decision to leave. But this presentation of Symonds as a scheming Lady Macbeth misses the point, as well as being lazily sexist.
Like Allegra Strattonm the government’s talented new chief spokesperson, Carrie Symonds was unimpressed by all the performative machismo in Number Ten and by the needlessly aggressive approach of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain.
Allegra Stratton told friends that she had not talked to Lee Cain for weeks because of his abrasive manner, and his Trumpesque contempt for some sections of the press.
With plenty of journalistic experience in the past travelling the country, she believed she could make the government’s communications more accessible at a time of great national stress and increase its daily reach to voters. Her especial interest was in the “levelling up” agenda, which was why she had gone to work for the Chancellor in the first place.
Now transferred to Number Ten, Allegra Stratton made clear that things had to change – and that she wouldn’t be a “speak your weight machine” on behalf of the Vote Leave gang – but (an important detail in view of what was to happen) that she wasn’t seeking Lee Cain’s head, or that of Dominic Cummings.
Lee Cain decided that he could not continue as director of communications in the context of any such demands – and in any case was hoping that Boris Johnson would promote him to the role of chief of staff, an idea that had been discussed by the two men in the previous weeks. The role was still notionally held by Eddie Lister, Boris’s former deputy mayor of London, who had made clear months before that he would like to step down and became a member of the House of Lords earlier this month.
The idea of promoting Lee Cain to this position was obviously ridiculous. If, to use the roles made famous by Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama The West Wing, he wasn’t up to being C.J. Cregg, how could he possibly cope with the job of Leo McGarry?
Where was the logic in that? Would he now, suddenly, be senior in the chain of command to Dominic Cummings, whose devoted lieutenant he had been for years? Did the prime minister seriously think that Allegra Stratton would happily report to Lee Cain in this new capacity?
The truth is that Ben Elliott, the chairman of the party, and others had for months been sounding out potential candidates for the job of chief of staff.
It’s a measure of how dysfunctional Boris Johnson’s government had become – and the reputation it had acquired – that they couldn’t persuade anyone with talent to take a job that would make them one of the most powerful people in the country.
It was ridiculous even to think of Lee Cain as the solution, and Carrie Symonds told Boris Johnson so. As one of her friends put it to me: “The reason Carrie was against Lee becoming chief of staff is because she’s met him.”
Yet again we can see the seeds of big changes being sown in the crunch 24 hours of Johnson’s Halloween nightmare.
As Lee Cain and his allies flailed, Boris Johnson held a virtual Cabinet meeting at 1:30pm at which ministers were presented with a fait accompli – and an incomplete picture.
As one put it to me: “It was at best a courtesy notification of what would be announced later on that afternoon. There was no discussion of furlough being extended or much of the detail. There was a fair bit of irritation at the leak. It was mostly an embarrassment – you know, we were doing this because we were doing it, and that was that.”
Comparing notes afterwards, some ministers pointed the finger at Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, believing they had systematically bounced the indecisive prime minister into a decision. For the record, the Gove camp emphatically denies this.
By this stage, the mole hunt was already pointless. The word was out and the embarrassment of the government compounded further as every hour passed.
At 1:40pm Laura Kuennsberg tweeted that the 4pm press conference would now be held at 5pm.
At 3:34pm ITV’s Robert Peston tweeted a fairly complete read-out of the measures the PM would be announcing at the press conference – whenever it actually started.
Meanwhile, Steve Baker, the fiercely pro-Brexit and anti-lockdown MP had been summoned to Number Ten with his so-called “red team” of scientists, as a show of good faith towards sceptical backbenchers and experts. Baker was determined to “take the wheels off the data”.
In a rare stroke of good fortune for the government, this act of intellectual demolition proved beyond Baker’s abilities and he strode from Downing Street to declare his satisfaction to the cameras:
[Steve Baker: But today, what I’ve had is the opportunity to take a team into Downing Street. There were three scientists, myself, a data analyst, we’ve had an amazing opportunity to robustly scrutinise the arguments, the data, the forecast of where we’re going. And what I would say to people is: the prime minister has got very, very difficult choices to make. And I would encourage all members of the public and all members of parliament to listen extremely carefully to what the prime minister says today and over the coming days.]
But what followed was a fiasco of government communication that encapsulated the sleepless mess that had preceded it and hinted ominously at the days of serious political fallout that were to follow.
Behind the scenes, Boris Johnson kept going missing in the warren of Number Ten Downing Street as aides tried desperately to get the final version of his speech and accompanying communiqués signed off. The prime minister likes to write his own material which is fine – except when you have half an hour to finish an all-important statement to the nation.
There were serious worries that Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty’s slides were completely incomprehensible.
And there was also the bathos of two big competing events on television. England trouncing Italy at rugby to win the Six Nations title, a match that kicked off at 4:45pm, and then Strictly Come Dancing’s scheduled start-time of 7:10pm.
Could Boris Johnson’s Strictly New Lockdown show be safely sandwiched between the two? Of such calculations is real politics made.
The rolling news channels cut back and forth between the studio and the dispiriting sight of three podiums bearing the HANDS-FACE-SPACE slogan in Downing Street. Would the press conference ever happen?
At 6:30pm, it was postponed again – bad news for Strictly Come Dancing’s 10 million viewers who now faced the truly horrendous prospect of their own show being delayed or cancelled.
At 6:47pm, finally, the press conference began.
Precisely when a Churchillian moment of statesmanship and focused oratory was most required – to give the nation a sense of quite how much was at stake – well, that wasn’t quite what we got…
[Boris Johnson: Good evening, and apologies for disturbing your Saturday evening with more news of Covid. And I can assure you I wouldn’t do this unless it was absolutely necessary. But first I’m going to hand over to Chris and then to Patrick who will present the latest data…]
Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty proceeded to mount one of the most unfathomable slide presentations in the history of Western democracy.
The image showing “heat maps” of how the virus was hitting different age groups deserves special mention, as does the Excel spreadsheet listing the situation facing individual hospitals.
The overall impression was a blur of meaninglessness. Patrick Vallance showed the slide with the all-important 4,000 death projection – but, curiously, omitted to mention the figure.
Over to the prime minister, who channelled his inner Margaret Thatcher to suggest a degree of certainty he was definitely not feeling:
[Boris Johnson: …because the virus is doubling faster than we can conceivably add capacity. And so now is the time to take action, because there is no alternative.]
Indeed, a few minutes later he was musing publicly about how torn he was:
[Boris Johnson: This is a constant struggle and a balance that any government has to make between lives and livelihoods. And obviously, lives must come first. But we have to be mindful the whole time of the scarring, the long term economic impact of the measures that were obliged to introduce.]
And lest anyone was in any doubt, the scientists were very keen to remind everyone watching that it was Boris Johnson’s call and they were just advisers:
[Patrick Vallance: There’s no doubt purely from the point of view of the spread of Covid, the earlier you go in, the better. And so that is definitely the case for the spread of the disease. But of course, you know, people have to take into account other things as well. And that’s a matter for politicians.]
That, in case you hadn’t noticed, is the sound of a prime minister being thrown under a bus – perhaps, if you can think back to 2016, a bus with a lie on the side about £350m a day that would come the way of the NHS if we left the European Union. He who lives by the bus risks dying under it.
The press conference ended with Boris Johnson still in place but visibly subdued, looking like a man deeply and justifiably demoralised. A politician conscious that the engine was out of fuel.
He had survived the Halloween from Hell – just – but the ghosts of All Hallow’s Eve kept revisiting him.
On Sunday morning, the key 4,000 deaths figure was publicly debunked in a Telegraph report.
Steve Baker, the Tory backbencher, quickly changed his mind on a second lockdown, with a core of at least 50 rebel Tories forming the new Covid Recovery Group to harry the Government. More political capital had gone to waste.
On Bonfire night, the split within the Quad – between the Matt Hancock-Michael Gove axis, supporting lockdown, and the doubters – was out in the open, thanks to Rishi Sunak’s Commons statement making very clear the extent of his opposition.
And, most important of all, Johnson, the hapless figure amidst the leaks, chaotic press conference and muddled messaging, had been forced to confront a reality that had been clear to others for months: that the Number Ten organisation needed root-and-branch change, so that it was worthy to be called an “organisation” at all.
In this respect, the search for the “chatty rat” was a proxy for a question to which the prime minister knew the answer all along.
Whether or not he could find out who had given the media advance notice of the lockdown plan – and he knew, as a journalist, that it was unlikely to be a single person making a single call – he knew that the mole hunt would force him to deal with the bigger problem of poisonous briefing.
That problem could not be resolved as long as Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings were still in the building – his closest comrades from the Vote Leave glory days. His bungled attempt to make Cain chief of staff had the whiff of desperation – and Carrie Symonds and Allegra Stratton told him so.
Only a few steps separated the prime minister’s mournful recognition that they were right to his summary dismissal of Cummings and Cain on Friday.
The old order changeth, yielding place to… what? Over the weekend, a “Great Reset” of the Johnson government was repeatedly promised – but its form and character remained very unclear.
More remarkable was the tectonic force driving it: namely that, less than a year after he had won a remarkable 80-seat majority, Johnson was routinely described by his own MPs as being “on probation” or even “in the last-chance saloon”.
Rarely are a prime minister’s problems so sharply and vividly dramatised as they were for Boris Johnson this turbulent Halloween. A whole style of government had been put to the test and found wanting.
In the words of one Cabinet minister: “He should have stuck it out. The case for another lockdown was far from settled. History will not judge this weekend kindly.”
On the case for a second lockdown it may yet be that the PM did the right thing, for the wrong reasons. We will not know the answer to that for weeks, as hospitals across the land struggle with thousands of admissions a day and hope that the emergency measures have worked.
But the verdict of history on these fateful hours at the end of October is indeed unlikely to be kind.
For Boris Johnson it was truly a Halloween horror – unleashing demons that will haunt him long into the political night.