Look out Boris, Rishi may be Britain’s destiny all too soon: A big majority, a vaccine, a Brexit deal. But in a New Year gaze into his crystal ball, JOHN HUMPHRYS sees a very unexpected twist for the PM
Some weeks ago I thought it might be helpful to paint a picture in these pages of what this country could look like in a few years’ time. Think Back To The Future if you like.
My imaginary hero was not a mad professor creating a time-travelling DeLorean car, but a fellow journalist called Tim who happens to be the news editor of a popular newspaper in 2024.
Now, as we enter a new year, it might be helpful to peer into his thoughts again. What follows is Tim’s reflections on how our battered nation coped with the aftermath of one of the more turbulent periods in our history.
Tim was puzzled. He liked to think of himself as a hack’s hack — not one of those pseudo-intellectuals who constructed fancy theories at the drop of a hat and then invented the ‘facts’ to fit them.
JOHN HUMPHRYS: Johnson and his sidekick Matt Hancock had been big on rhetoric and patronising lectures. Not so big on competence.
His job was to find out what’s happened and put it into perspective, and that’s what he had been trying to do for his paper’s New Year’s edition.
It was four years since the coronavirus had appeared. Serious experts had predicted untold horrors from the very start. One warned of half a million deaths. Others forecast the collapse of the NHS.
When a second wave hit, the Health Secretary announced solemnly that the new mutant variety of Covid-19 was ‘out of control’. It was, some said, the darkest period Britain had faced in living memory.
Or was it?
Good journalism is said to be the first rough draft of history, so Tim put that to his sprightly 99-year-old father. He looked at his son as though he’d lost his marbles.
‘Darker than the war I fought in?’ he barked. ‘The country on the brink of Nazi occupation . . . hundreds of thousands of young men sent to fight who never came home . . . tens of thousands slaughtered in the Blitz and God knows how many other towns and cities bombed to blazes.
‘Millions left homeless. The economy destroyed. You’re not serious are you?’
No, thought Tim, he probably wasn’t. But then again, war is different — even if Boris Johnson’s rhetoric had so often suggested otherwise. His endless references to the virus as ‘the enemy’ and his ludicrous claims that ‘in this fight . . . we are all enlisted’. His boasts of ‘world-beating’ test and trace plans which turned out to be pathetically inadequate.
What’s more, if Johnson had been right and this really was a war, there could only ever have been one victor. Covid was no more cunning and devious than any other virus in the history of human kind. It existed to do one thing and one thing only. Survive. And sooner or later it would die out or lose its potency and we’d learn to live with it.
It was just a matter of how many deaths we were prepared to accept — or how soon we had an effective vaccine.
Johnson and his sidekick Matt Hancock had been big on rhetoric and patronising lectures. Not so big on competence. The mantra that they were ‘following the science’ was always nonsense.
Too often ministers misled the long-suffering public either by accident or by design. And that, thought Tim, might help explain the eventual downfall of Boris Johnson.
As 2020 approached its close, many of his MPs were fed up with him and the polls suggested the voters were, too. They thought he was lazy. He didn’t do his homework, didn’t study his briefs, didn’t think detail mattered.
And then, at midday on Christmas Eve, he was handed a gift that would have delighted even the most avaricious child. A Brexit deal.
His great gamble had paid off. All the bluster and boasting for which he had been ridiculed over the years by his political enemies had apparently done the trick.
Brussels had caved in. We could sell goods to all 27 EU countries without fear of punitive tariffs or quotas — the first deal of its kind the EU had agreed in its history.
Our nation would be freed from the yolk of a protectionist, sclerotic, bureaucratically hidebound organisation that could not even control its own budget.
Even a sceptical old hack like Tim had to admit that Boris had bounced back.
But the virus had not gone away. In the dying days of 2020, much of the nation was once again plunged into the gloom of a national lockdown.
And then . . . yet another stunning announcement that had us cheering.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for use in the UK. The first doses would be given in five days — and the UK had already ordered enough to vaccinate 50 million people. Used alongside the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, which was already in action, that would be enough to cover the entire population.
Inevitably, things did not go quite according to plan. With depressing familiarity, the Government’s promised timetable had proved too optimistic.
The number of Pfizer jabs had had to be scaled back dramatically and, in the early stages, GPs across the land were complaining that there was still no sign of the Oxford vaccines they had been promised. They simply could not cope with the demand from their patients.
But eventually the Army was mobilised. Town and village halls and even some football stadiums were commandeered.
The few remaining anti-vaxxers tried to scare the nation by claiming vast numbers who’d had the jab were experiencing terrible after-effects and a few loonies still clung to their belief that it was all a plot by Bill Gates to control the world. But by late spring, the virus had been brought under control. The NHS had been saved.
This was the point, Tim reflected, when the nation began to return to normal. But he’d been a journalist long enough to know that ‘normal’ is a word used only by the hopelessly naive. Because this was when Brexit began to reappear on the front pages.
The Brexit deal had had its downside. It had not included what the experts call ‘frictionless’ trade.
New regulations meant it was often much more expensive for UK firms to do business in the EU. Some smaller companies were going bust under the burden.
The big boys were hurting, too. Eighty per cent of British exports are made up of services. Finance alone employs more than a million people and raises more than 10 per cent of tax revenues, and their services were not covered in the deal. Their competitors on the continent tried to make the most of it.
But the City is good at what it does — it’s had centuries of experience dealing in money — and firms eventually found a new place in the international system with regulations that suited them.
The Government’s finances were in a perilous state, though, because of the record-breaking sums borrowed to meet the costs of Covid-19.
Most worrying of all, unemployment was approaching three million. The Prime Minister’s halo, thought Tim, was beginning to look a little tarnished.
And that was when a promise he had made at the height of the pandemic came back to haunt him.
Johnson had ducked many big questions throughout the pandemic by promising that there would be a public inquiry once it was all over. That time had come. There were many questions:
Why had it taken so long for him to take the warnings seriously?
Why were nursing homes used as dumping grounds for old people turfed out of hospitals? Why were the public misled time and again by statistics that even the experts admitted had been erroneous?
Why had generous contracts for vital kit such as PPE and Test and Trace been awarded to companies that were patently unfit to fulfil them?
But the question that overshadowed all else was the simplest. Had the Government overreacted? Had it delivered a cure for Covid-19 that tuned out to be worse than the disease?
Tim dredged up the figures again. Yes, many lives had been lost. Yet in the first 50 weeks of 2020, mortality was only marginally higher than the average for the previous ten years. Hardly a great plague.
And those bare figures took no account of the many lives blighted or destroyed because so many were denied desperately needed treatment. Cancer sufferers for a start. Children denied schooling. Old people who had to die alone. People suffering from poor mental health driven to despair.
To the surprise of many, Johnson himself agreed to give evidence to the inquiry. It was a disaster. He treated the forensic questions as though he were facing a rowdy opposition in the House of Commons. The contrast with his Chancellor Rishi Sunak was noted. Where Boris had been mostly bluster, Sunak was measured.
That, thought Tim, had been the turning point for Johnson. There was already speculation that he was bored with being Prime Minister. He’d had his share of triumphal moments and he had relished them, but from now on it would be different. And the sheer grind of running the country did not appeal. Nor did the miserly (by his standards) salary. And anyway, once again, the opinion polls had turned against him.
Then there was his private life. The public will forgive a Prime Minister almost anything when he’s winning battles, but they are less forgiving when what they crave is a steady, reliable hand on the tiller. And new rumours had been circulating about a certain young woman who . . . but Tim stopped himself at this point.
The fact is there were always rumours about Johnson. Some turned out to be true, but now that he had left Downing Street and, indeed, retired from Parliament, they were his affair. Literally.
The election of Rishi Sunak to the Tory leadership proved to be more a coronation than a closely fought contest. But from the day he moved into No 10 it was clear he had studied the style of Johnson’s premiership and set out to do the opposite.
There would be no triumphalism, no extravagant boasts, no wild promises. He acknowledged the nation’s financial plight and warned the road to recovery would be a long one, though there were already signs of recovery.
And he promised to build on the one great success from the Covid-19 year: Britain’s outstanding scientific achievements. We had led the world in developing a vaccine and that was just the start.
As Tim watched Sunak’s first speech as Prime Minister, his thoughts turned to his own three children, the eldest in his late teens. They were good kids but Tim worried about how they would cope in a world that had become so polarised and so angry.
Yes, there had always been divisions in society, but when he was a young man they had mostly been ideological: Left versus Right. Now identity politics was taking over, enabled by the bear pit of so much social media.
Increasingly we were being defined by what we were: our race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, economic class, religion and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. These are not differences that can be resolved by argument, he thought, and even if they were, argument was not allowed. Debate was often censored. Powerful organisations such as the BBC were intimidated. Powerful individuals were ‘cancelled’.
It scared Tim — as a journalist but mostly as a father. He remembered a speech made by John Major when he was Prime Minister 30 years ago, calling for ‘a nation at ease with itself’. Years later he said what he had meant by that: a nation in which ‘people have the right to self-respect and the right to dignity’.
Prime Minister Sunak delivered almost exactly the same sentiments on his first day in office.
Tim was delighted, but he had learned that you judge a politician by actions rather than words.
The next day, Sunak took action. He announced his first senior appointment to run a new department with the specific remit of tackling inequality. It was Marcus Rashford.
Tim allowed himself a smile.
A gimmick, for sure, but the right sort of gimmick. His kids would approve. And that was a pretty good start.