You can tell that the worst of the COVID crisis is over in the United Kingdom, purely because of the volume of noise coming from opponents of Prime Minister Boris Johnson both from within his party and from outside too. And right now, there are deafening decibels coming from Westminster — about as loud as a sack of tom cats fighting over a kitten queen.
Right now, with UK voters heading to the polls on Thursday May 6 in a string of elections, this political infighting is the last thing Johnson needs now.
This infighting has been going on for the past three weeks or so, ever since former PM David Cameron became embroiled in a lobbying row over soliciting funds for an investment bank where he worked since stepping aside from 10 Downing Street. That has now escalated into a more serious affair over who exactly paid for a major renovation of the apartment he shares with his partner and their young son at the Downing Street. Johnson and his supporters say he did pay for them. He might well have — but was that before, after, or because of the news leaking of the works being funded by deep-pocketed Conservative party supporters? It matters, frankly, because the revelations of these past few weeks show that rules over access to ministers and how government contracts were handed out seem to have been less than watertight.
Here’s the thing. Much of this back-and-forth over lobbying is part and parcel of the way governments operate. To that end, the series of scandals might individually not be enough to damage the PM — some might even say it improves his standing as a leader capable of wheeling and dealing and getting things done — but together, one after another, along with all of the noise that they generate in news cycles, will collectively do damage: They will at least generate the perception that not all is right in senior government circles.
But right now, those scandals together are not the least of Johnson’s worries. What is making people think twice now is a report that the PM reportedly told a government meeting late last year that he would rather have “bodies pile high in their thousands” than implement a third coronavirus lockdown. The third did indeed come into effect in early January.
And bodies piled in the street? Well, the UK toll stands close to 128,000 deaths — and a lot of the surviving relatives of those fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters are furious over the claim, published first in the Daily Mail newspaper last weekend.
Johnson has vehemently denied making such a comment. Normally, you would expect that to be that. Not now. Not this time. And not when those relatives are calling for a public inquiry to examine just how the Johnson government handled the entire coronavirus crisis, whether it was slow to call the first lockdown, whether the National Health Service was adequately prepared for it or not — and just who benefited from contracts for personal protective equipment — and how decisions were made throughout the process.
Let me say quickly that the Johnson government deserve full credit for the manner in which they have handled the vaccination programme — more than half of all adults have received at least one, and mostly two doses of Covid 19 vaccines — but that full credit will be quickly eroded should indeed that “bodies pile high in their thousands” remark prove to be true.
In the normal news cycle, one would normally expect the PM’s denial to be enough to make it go away. The trouble is those other sleaze scandals are hanging around like a bad smell. And the stench might get worse.
British broadcasters are reporting that three different Conservative officials are willing to come forward at some point and even speak under oath, should the prime minister continue to deny the comment supposedly made in a fit of rage.
Asked directly if he made the comments, Johnson said: “No, but I think the important thing I think people want us to get on and do as a government is to make sure that the lockdowns work. They have, and I really pay tribute to the people of this country, this whole country of ours, really pulled together and, working with the vaccination programme, we have got the disease under control.”
That’s called deflection, trying to change the narrative. And the big danger is that there might indeed be a recording of the meeting, which would be highly embarrassing if that’s the case. Highly damaging too.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer says Johnson needs to make a public statement about reports he is alleged to have claimed he would “let the bodies pile high” rather than have another lockdown.
“I think, like everybody reading that, I was astonished to see those words,” Sir Keir said. “It’s for the Prime Minister, I think, now, to make a public statement about that. If he did say those things then he’s got to explain it, if he didn’t, go on the record and publicly explain what was said and what wasn’t said.”
This surge of spring sleaze has come about, in part, by the breakdown in the relationship between Johnson and his former chief aide, Dominic Cummings — he of the Covid breaches and driving to test his eyesight academy of apparatchiks. Johnson has railed against his former best buddy, claiming that he is behind the damaging leaks of these past weeks.
The worry for Johnson now should be just exactly what information Cummings has on his phone — and in the cardboard box he carried from 10 Downing Street when he quit in December.
Time will indeed be very telling.