Gary Raymond offers a heartfelt letter to Boris Johnson after the UK Prime Minister’s beleaguered performance in front of the parliamentary Liaison Select Committee on Wednesday.
Dear Prime Minister Boris (I never get tired of how funny that sounds),
I hope this letter finds you safe and healthy in these unprecedented times. I am writing because of my concern for the safety and health of our country in these unprecedented times. And I am writing because I have another concern too; a concern for you, that you are buggering up your life’s work in the final furlough. I am worried your life-long project of gliding through the day-to-day in high-level positions of power, be it journalism or politics or birth-right, is beginning to disentangle itself from the rarefied cloisters of your entombed privilege. I worry about these things. I really do. You have spent your entire life carefully keeping your true character and your public persona profitably unfamiliar with one another. But things seem to be changing.
The cat is out of the bag.
Or at least the bag has been opened, and the general public has been invited to peer in. There it can see the flea-bitten, malnourished moggy that lurks within, sinisterly picking clumps of fabric off the furniture. Or is that clumps of hair? Straw-like hair. I’m not going to challenge you to a metaphor-stretching contest, as I feel this is certainly the one field in which your mastery would leave me as humiliated as an Oxford waitress. So, let’s just put it like this: that I am worried your loyalty to Dominic Cummings has awoken the sleeping public to what a useless operator you are. They are being introduced, in real time, to your superficiality, your laziness, your general lack of character. The country (and the world) is in a terrible mix, and we all want you to be good at this. But you’re not.
The tragedy here (apart from the 60,000 deaths you are partly responsible for) is that the bag, the cat bag, has been opened by Dominic Cummings. Your guy; he’s invited this in. His inability to feel contrition (because that’s what people really want here, not a display of it, but an actual feeling of it) is what has caused the turmoil you’re currently experiencing. I would understand, by looking at your face, if your mind flittered occasionally back to the peace and quiet of the ICU in St Thomas’s Hospital, the voices of Select Committee members drowned out by the concertina wheeze of the ventilators your bed-neighbours have plugged into them.
But you can’t go back, Prime Minister. Blame anti-bodies if you must, but we are where we are. So, how can I help?
That Liaison Select Committee performance on Wednesday hammered home several truths. Many people tuned in to that hearing hoping to see some contrition circling somewhere in the vicinity of the Dominic Cummings story; some, of course – not me, you understand – hoped to see you squirm like a spineless worm, but many will have just wanted some answers, some clarity, some truth. What many will not have been expecting is that the meat of the hearing was not to be in the answers to any Dominic-related grilling, but rather it lay in the evidentiary display of your comprehensive ignorance on all matters relating to Covid-19. There was barely a corner of government policy you were familiar with. It was truly shocking. Impressively so.
My fear is that what you didn’t seem to realise was that because of your man Dom, thousands upon thousands of people were watching this, broadcast live through many outlets, who would never have gone near a parliamentary committee meeting in a month of Sundays before the Dom story broke. And now they were watching you in “action”, if you can call it that. It wasn’t a good look, Boris. Nobody wants to see the cat inside the bag; certainly not the common voter.
In politics, they call it “being across your brief”. You were less across it than you were under it, the committee members dolling out a peine forte et dure of simple, basic questions. It allowed the previously uninitiated and uninterested to see just how angry you get when a woman asks you difficult questions, as Yvette Cooper and Meg Hillier did. I hate to tell you how pink and wobbly in the face you were getting in your exchange with Cooper. You look like you had a fish bone stuck in your throat. It was in marked contrast to your smirking robble-robble when it was a man asking you the questions. But that’s not say the men were any kinder, although something about them being men seems to put you more at ease. But nobody was going to cut you a break, and for that you have my sympathy. Even Jeremy Hunt had it in for you, his questions filled with the new-born energy of a man confident that if anyone mispronounced his surname during the meeting everyone would immediately assume they were just talking about you.
The other Tory MPs were no less eager to sustain a robust quizzing of the man in charge. I felt sorry for you. You gave it a decent shot for about 15 minutes before your brain threw in the towel. I have as much respect as the next person for anyone who knows the difference between “continual” and “continuous” without looking it up, but it just wasn’t quite enough to carry you through on this occasion. And I have to admit, Prime Minister, coming up to the hour mark, you looked bloody knackered. You looked dazed. And everybody was watching. Not just other politicians and a few journalists. But normal people. People who have been indoctrinated into calling you Boris, rather than Johnson. People who thought you were a bit of a laff, a bon viveur, a breath of fresh air. Oh dear, they could now see what you really are. And all because your mate Dom opened the bag, Mr Prime Minister, sir.
It is a lonely job being a Conservative Prime Minister. No amount of cold slavish loyalty can replicate the humane benefits of actual friendship. The sad thing is, whereas I fear you’ve never really experienced the latter – not really – your wealth in the former is currently dwindling too.
As of May 26th, the day after Dom’s bravura, swashbuckling, issue-ending speech in the Number 10 rose garden, 71% of people believed he broke the rules. That went up after he explained how he hadn’t broken the rules. Your own approval ratings (I’m telling you in case you haven’t read the briefing) took a bit of dip, from +19 to -1. Forty-four Conservative MPs are now calling for Dom to resign, and the number is rising. They include some big names with ministerial roles peppering their CVs, the type of Tory you might see a regular Joe point at the screen with his fork over dinner and go, “I don’t mind that one so much.” Penny Mordaunt, Amber Rudd – sorry, Prime Minister, is that a fish bone stuck in your throat? But, come on: Forty-four! That’s a hefty number. And these are Conservative MPs – not exactly a tribe renowned for its rank and file of moral crusaders. This isn’t going away.
Of course, it might just go away. A fire needs fanning, and you can be forgiven for putting your hopes in a media that usually has the attention span of a cat chasing a laser pen. What you have to do is create a more attractive shiny point of focus for them. This can sometimes take the form of the “dead cat” technique. If people are talking about something you’d prefer them to not be talking about, you walk in and throw a dead cat on the table and everybody starts talking about the dead cat. At least this explains what Dominic carries around in that knapsack of his.
But this hasn’t been working, not least because your Cabinet isn’t exactly “talent-inclined”. Matt Hancock, this morning interviewed by Sky’s Kay Burley, is a case in point. When asked about the early introduction of trace and track, and whether it was being introduced before it was ready in order to refocus the news cycle away from Dominic Cummings, Hancock descended into hysterical laughter as if he was just about to marched to a fifty-foot wicker man and burned alive. I think the strain is beginning to tell.
It must be frustrating that all your dead cats are doing little to rub out the 60,000 dead Britons, laid to rest either directly or indirectly because of Covid-19. As the Financial Times reports, the UK now has “a higher rate of death than in any country for which high-quality data exist. The absolute number of excess deaths in the UK is also the highest in Europe, and second only to the US in global terms.” That sort of reporting must make the attempts at bonhomie in front of your Parliamentary colleagues at the Select Committee hearing all the more difficult, and for those efforts to maintain your smirk, you have my respect.
And now we find ourselves in the peculiar situation of having Emily Maitlis publicly reprimanded by her bosses for the way she presented truths in her Newsnight opening on Tuesday. The BBC has apologised, which must have been difficult for you, Prime Minister, as we all know how much apologies get your back up. Contrary to initial reports, Maitlis was not pulled from presenting the following episode of Newsnight as part of her reprimand, but rather she removed herself from the programme. Her colleagues Katie Razall, who stepped in for her, and lead reporter Lewis Goodall, both tweeted how proud they were to work within that Newsnight team. Count them as winks and nudges that the friction was with higher, greyer suits than Newsnight Editor Esmé Wren. One can reasonably assume Maitlis recused herself from presenting that night rather than offer some kind of personal apology live on air, and that she did that with the full backing of her Editor. We may never know the details. But it’s obvious, Prime Minister, that as you’ve tried your best to blame the media for all this, someone sympathetic to your current plight must be delighted that there has been room here to make Newsnight the story. Nice work, Prime Minister. (If it wasn’t you, could you pass that congratulations on?).
But initial reports suggest your Trumpian attempts to blame the media aren’t sticking. And I’m worried now that you’re running out of ideas. Perhaps the very last idea is to let Dominic Cummings go. Let him go, Prime Minister. For the sake not just of the nation’s health, but for its sanity. And, far far far far far far far more important, for your own. I worry your relationship with Dom is reminding me more and more of Jojo Rabbit. It’s encouraging that your narrative arc could have the potential for redemption, but it’s all a bit overshadowed by the fact that Dominic is Hitler.
So, to conclude, I’m going to share with you an idea that may just sort all this out, and you can return to doing whatever it is you do, in the privacy of your own government. I’m going to try and help you get across your brief. I have a suggestion for a replacement for Dominic. I realise the very idea of him leaving breaks you into a cold sweat. Who will make your eggs the way you like them? Who will tuck you in at night? Who will fill that big old empty head of yours with ideas? Well, I have just the person. Forget about Dom, Prime Minister; Emily Maitlis can look after you.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.