How fitting, that it was one of Downing Street’s little media gimmicks that led to Boris Johnson’s true character being so badly exposed.
The gimmick: having two pre-recorded questions from members of the public to go ahead of the media at the Number 10 coronavirus briefing.
Stated reason for the gimmick: “the people’s government” lets the people ask the questions.
Real reason: it undermines the media. Encourages softer questions.
Why it went wrong on Saturday: the first public question was from someone called Laura, about shielding. But within her question was the revelation that she had lost two people close to her to Covid.
What Johnson’s answer revealed: on policy, that he didn’t know much about the shielding situation; and on human empathy, that he has none.
It is not that he doesn’t listen. But he hears the bits he wants to hear. It’s the flip side to his communications strategy on Covid, and Brexit, which consists of imagining the world as he wants it to be, and then describing it, always careful to mention the government’s world-beating role in bringing it about or, if it is bad news, finding some else to blame.
So he heard the word shielding, and immediately thought “boring detail, need to waffle for a few seconds and then hand it to Vallance or Whitty so I can focus on what I am going to say to the BBC Laura.”
Tier 4 households banned from mixing for Christmas
When he passed the question to Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer faced a tricky choice. Whitty, the human being, knew that the prime minister’s failure to have said anything about two dead people was, to use a word Johnson used three days earlier to describe the cancellation of Christmas, “inhuman.” But in a government in which critics and trouble makers are variously briefed against, bullied, sacked or marched to the door at gunpoint, Whitty, the public official, knew that to say something risked embarrassing the PM as many who were watching were already texting each other – “did Johnson really just sack off someone who said she lost two people to Covid?”
To his credit, Whitty went with the human reaction, whilst being careful to link it to a policy message and was altogether more sincere than when ministers trot out their “thoughts and prayers”, whether for a celebrity death, or a few hundred more lost to Covid.
One of my many complaints about Donald Trump was that he was only ever motivated by himself. That has become clearer since the election, with neither the US constitution nor the health of the American people allowed to get in the way of the only thing that interests him … whinging about losing an election that he lost.
You may remember the time, in the Oval Office, when he asked a woman about her son. She told him her son had died. He moved on as if she didn’t exist. At the time a friend who works in mental health texted me the single word: “Sociopathic.” I looked it up to see whether he might be exaggerating.
This is the first thing that Mr Google offered me: “A sociopath is a term used to describe someone who has antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). People with ASPD can’t understand others’ feelings. They’ll often break rules or make impulsive decisions without feeling guilty for the harm they cause.” Trump. Definitely.
Among the “people also ask” bit was “what is a narcissistic personality disorder?” I took a look at that. ”A mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.”
Mmm. Now it is Christmas and when I did something called the Godcast last week with Alex Frost, the minister in Burnley featured on the BBC recently for his work helping to feed poor children, he told me he thought I was too angry with the government, I had to understand Boris Johnson is a human being too, and I should try to be “nice.” So for the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying Johnson is a narcissistic sociopath. I am however saying that he has always had an inflated sense of his own importance, he has long had a desperate need for admiration and attention, we know more than is good for us about his troubled relationships, and I am definitely beginning to worry he has zero empathy.
Then, if we go back to antisocial personality disorder – “they’ll often break rules or make impulsive decisions without feeling guilty for the harm they cause.” Johnson is all about impulse. And whether it is in his public or private life, he does not do guilt. Whether child poverty at home, the impact of his broken manifesto commitment on overseas aid abroad, or the chaos he inflicted on millions with his latest Covid volte face on Saturday, I am not remotely persuaded that he thinks too deeply about the real people on the receiving end of his policy impulses. He thinks about how he is seen by his supporters, especially the rich ones who fund his campaigns. He thinks about how the media report him. He thinks about his political strength as Tory leader. And if it is a real mess, he thinks about distractions to move the agenda to something else.
There was a lot of talk about Kent at Saturday’s press conference. But no talk of Brexit (another media fail) and those seemingly never-ending queues of lorries as a Brexit won on lies and false promises was running into the buffers of reality. Was Johnson worrying about the lorry drivers stuck in their cabs? Or the damage being done to supply chains, and the impact on businesses and jobs? Was he hell! He was worrying about how it would all affect him.
He has had two big challenges in 2020. Delivering the oven-ready Brexit deal. And managing Covid. The personality traits he needed to win the referendum, and then become prime minister, are the exact opposite of what the country needs to get us through the chaos he has created.
America has corrected its 2016 error. We, sadly, have to live with ours for much longer.