A flicker of anxiety crossed Boris Johnson’s brow as he was asked for his thoughts on bullying and racism. Only last week, his government paid out a £340,000 settlement to Priti Patel’s former top civil servant at the Home Office who had alleged he was forced out of his job, and his views on watermelon smiles and women in burqas are well rehearsed. But then he realised that the question was about Meghan and Harry and not about him and he visibly relaxed.
Before he became prime minister, Johnson would almost certainly have had plenty to say about the Sussexes’ interview with Oprah Winfrey in a hastily dashed off £5,000 piece for the Daily Telegraph, but now he is struggling to get by on £150k a year he is learning the value of silence. He had nothing but admiration for the Queen and he wasn’t going to comment on anything else. A second journalist tried to get him him to say something about everyone in the royal family other than the Queen, but still Boris kept to his script. It was best for him to say nothing, so nothing was what he was going to say.
All of which rather killed off the Downing Street press conference because no one was particularly interested in what Boris had to say about children returning to school that morning. Partly because he had nothing to say – other than they had gone back – but mainly because what most people really wanted to know was what he had to say about the news item that had dominated the media’s attention throughout the day and he was unsurprisingly refusing to play ball. Why make trouble for himself? A day or two of not being front page news was the stuff of which Johnson’s dreams were made.
This was Boris as the unusually cautious man. Cautious about easing restrictions any faster – even if the data suggested it to be a possibility. Better to underpromise and overdeliver rather than vice versa. Cautious too about giving any answer on who paid for the £200k refurb of his Downing Street flat – though that could be because he has yet to finalise the accounts.
In fact, just about the only time he got carried away was right at the end when he insisted that the troubles with the Northern Ireland protocol were largely imaginary and once the freeports were up and running then everything would be fine. It continues to slip his mind that freeports were allowed under EU rules and we had experimented with them for the best part of 25 years before ditching them in 2012. Still, he could be forgiven for his exuberance as he’s still very much an absolute beginner at less-is-more politics. Or less-is-more anything, for that matter.
One good favour deserves another. So if Meghan and Harry had done the PM a favour by filling the airwaves, then the least Johnson could do was to bring forward his press conference by an hour to make sure that almost no one tuned in to the urgent question on NHS pay. You could tell this was a car crash waiting to happen because there was no sign of Matt Hancock to answer it. Normally the health secretary makes himself available for any UQ in the Commons but even he has his limits. He knows it’s hypocritical to call nurses heroes only to then offer them an effective pay cut, so this was a punishment beating someone else could take.
That someone was junior health minister, Helen Whately, who will do anything to ingratiate herself with her bosses. She is Door Matt’s very own door mat. Not that even she could force herself to sound particularly convincing as she tried to sell a 1% pay rise as riches beyond compare for women and men who had saved so many lives during the coronavirus pandemic.
It wasn’t just shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, and his Labour colleagues who pointed out the blatant unfairness of offering just an extra £3.50 a week to nurses. Whatever happened to that £350m weekly Brexit bonus? Although there were a few friendly faces on the government benches pointing out that the 1% was 1% more than other public sector workers were getting, there were plenty of Tories, including Jeremy Hunt, Tobias Ellwood and Bob Blackman, suggesting she do the right thing and offer a decent pay rise.
Long before the end, the normally upbeat Whately was looking thoroughly downcast. She knows that the pay review board will recommend the government finds more money – hell, it can find the cash for home decor and hush money – and that a fudge, possibly a one-off bonus payment, of some description will be reached, so there was little to be gained by trashing what was left of her credibility. All she could do was hope that Hancock was sufficiently grateful for the favour she was doing him. And that no one had seen her humiliation.