Boris Johnson’s non-visit to Perugia in Italy was the peculiar story of the week. An Italian paper reported it as a fact. A categorical No.10 denial followed. Then it emerged that airport staff had actually seen the arrival of Tony Blair and seemingly thought he was still Britain’s prime minister.
Many of us wish he were, not least to deal with the escalating Covid-19 crisis now into its second wave, with no end in sight. For months now, Blair has been hammering away at the need for mass national testing to minimise the impact of the inevitable second wave after the lifting of the first lockdown in the absence of a vaccine.
Announcing this week’s semi-lockdown, Johnson said “a stitch in time saves nine”. A better slogan is “a test in time saves lives”, but he couldn’t say that because after six months of national emergency there still isn’t an effective test and trace system.
Instead, in a classic exhibition of what passes for purposeful activity in this government, Dominic Cummings decided in the middle of the pandemic to replace one quango (Public Health England) with another (the National Institute for Health Protection).
Quango Two is led by Dido Harding, a hapless Tory peer of no public health experience, who expressed surprise that there should be a surge in demand for tests when infection rates escalated alongside the start of a new school year.
There is less national unity than in the months after the March lockdown, despite the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s support for the latest measures.
Young people, in particular, are widely fed up – even fractious and angry – at being cooped up yet again in their shared flats and parental homes, unable even to get out to the pub after 10pm. At least this time schools, colleges and university campuses are open, and likely to remain so except in case of severe local lockdowns.
Tory journalists and MPs, many voicing libertarian opposition to further restrictions, are also restive. Ominously for Johnson, the Sun has started praising Starmer. “Labour gets Rebranded – Security, Security, SirKeirity”, it quipped in praise of the Labour leader’s virtual party conference speech this week. Clunky but comradely. The Times followed suit. “Overburdened, underpaid and misery on his face,” it reported of the prime ministerial mood in the No.10 bunker, pointedly contrasting Britain’s Covid-19 incompetence with Germany “where the government is planning walk-in centres for those with temperatures and cold symptoms and will introduce mass testing for high-risk groups such as elderly people in care homes”.
In truth, the European mainland is hardly a monolith of competence and harmony. Macron in France is assailed from all sides as infection rates take off in Paris and Marseille. In Spain, according to one report, “confusion, anger, ridicule and accusations of segregation” are accompanying severe local lockdowns in poorer parts of Madrid.
Buck-passing and bitter recriminations are flying between Spain’s national government, controlled by the left, and Madrid city hall controlled by the right, while a taxi driver noted that “on my side of the street the bars are open until 1am, on the other side they have to close at 10pm, so when one closes you just cross the street”.
Westminster chatter is that Johnson’s political survival is far from assured. Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s chancellor and maybe his nemesis, has had a good crisis so far, signing larger and larger cheques with a smile. This week he was making known his opposition to closing restaurants and pubs even after 10pm.
Yet surprisingly, despite it all, Johnson’s national ratings have not plummeted. He is neck-and-neck with Labour in the latest polls, and still way ahead on economic competence, which is a key test of electoral vulnerability.
However, my eye was caught by his highest rating by far in the latest Ipsos-Mori survey. To the question “Has got lots of personality”, the response was 67% for Johnson, 25% for Starmer.
So ‘SirKeirity’ doesn’t pass the Perugia airport recognition test either. Which leaves Tony Blair as Britain’s prime minister in exile for the foreseeable future.