Bodies of evidence: Boris Johnson’s ‘endgame’? That’s just ludicrous wishful thinking...

... and don’t be fooled into thinking The Daily Mail is on your side.

Oh, he’s really done it this time! For a certain type of liberal commentator saying bad words is worse than doing bad things. For them, the suggestion — published first by The Daily Mail but since stood up by BBC News and ITV News alike — that Boris Johnson said he was prepared to “let the bodies pile in their thousands” rather than impose a third lockdown is dynamite; retweet gold.

With the naive hope of a child confronted by a small, book-shaped present still thinking it might be a bike, the same commentators who thought a ratag band of Labour defectors, ‘good’ Tory backbenchers, and… uh… the Queen would stop Brexit, are howling about Boris Johnson’s “endgame”. But the Prime Minister’s political career has had more false endings than Lost.

It seems that people who have convinced themselves that the “bodies” comment will be the end for Boris Johnson have forgotten what little effect his grimoire of previous grotesque comments including the crack about “Operation Last Gasp” at the very height of the crisis have had.

The Times expands on the claims today with a story from sometime government stenographer Steven Swinford headlined Boris Johnson ‘said he would let Covid rip’ in lockdown row. Swinford writes:

Boris Johnson allegedly told aides in Downing Street he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than impose a second lockdown because of the economic harm further restrictions would cause.

The prime minister is said to have argued in September that there was no evidence lockdowns worked and described them as “mad” during an intense debate within government.

The Times has been told that he repeatedly said he would rather “let it rip” during this period than implement another lockdown, because the restrictions would cause businesses to close and people to lose their jobs.

He is also said to have expressed regret about the first lockdown, comparing himself to the mayor in the film Jaws who kept the beaches open despite the risk of shark attacks. Johnson has in the past suggested that the mayor was the “real hero” of the film for resisting political pressure.

Again, while this sounds dramatic, the Prime Minister previously pondered that strategy while sat on the This Morning sofa:

Tony Blair took the United Kingdom into two disastrous wars and he’s still able to make his ‘rare’ interventions into British politics every other week. His spin chief Alastair Campbell was supposedly once persona non grata but he’s on TV more than Come Dine With Me repeats.

The idea that Boris Johnson — a creature of the British media whose political rise was aided by panel shows and whose real calling is to write contentious columns for The Daily Telegraph — will be done for when he leaves Downing Street is total horseshit. That The Daily Mail is laying into him now reflects two things: 1) It’s angry because lockdowns have affected its advertisers and 2) Boris Johnson is not and has never been its guy.

In the Commons yesterday, Michael Gove — husband of The Daily Mail’s star columnist Sarah Vine — responded to an urgent question on the row and specifically the “bodies” remark with a carefully worded denial:

The idea that [the Prime Minister] would say such a thing I find incredible. I was in that room, I never heard language of that kind.

This is, of course, the same Michael Gove who incompetently shivved Johnson during the 2016 Tory leadership contest (“…while Boris has great attributes he was not capable of uniting that team and leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped.”) He had a Damascene conversion in 2019 when it became clear that Johnson was certain to be the next Prime Minister, removing the knife, cleaning it off, and making out like he tripped.

The Mail would be delighted to have Gove in Downing Street if it could keep Vine’s column going. After all, she’s been indiscreet enough as the wife of a cabinet minister. How juicy would her Downing Street diaries be? But I suspect that it would actually prefer to rekindle its Thatcher fantasies with Priti Patel as Prime Minister, ‘putting a bit of stick about’.

Today’s Daily Mail front page will be comforting to those Tory rivals who are hoping that Boris Johnson will bounce out of the big seat soon. In thundering capitals, the headline screams Boris On The Ropes and the Mail luxuriates in every excruciating detail:

Boris Johnson was under siege last night as questions mounted over his personal conduct in a string of controversies.

Fresh sources came forward to confirm he had made a crass comment about lockdown deaths – even as he tried to deny it. 

In a second blow, he was facing further questions about the lavish redecoration of his flat after it emerged that the Conservative Party settled a £58,000 bill last summer.

It continues by talking about the “growing concerns about the Prime Minister’s personal conduct” as if the affairs, the vast catalogue of lies, the sackings, and the infamous incident when he conspired in a plan to have a journalist beaten up were not all public knowledge long before the 2019 election.

The Daily Mail ‘backed Boris’ while it was convenient to do so — to ensure there was no prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister and push through a bodged together Brexit — but Johnson has always been The Telegraph’s man. It was inevitable that the Mail would eventually go for him, with the tasty buffet of scandals and affairs too delicious for the tabloid to resist.

That ITV News’ permanently buffering Political Editor, Robert Peston, wrote for The Spectator yesterday that he had confirmed with two “ear witnesses” that The Daily Mail’s claims about the ‘bodies’ remark are bang on has only fired it up more. It’s not a lone wolf but part of a chasing pack now and it senses that it could take Boris Johnson down as though he was a bore pissed up on fermented berries and stumbling around the forest.

The Sun, like its Murdoch stablemate The Times, is riding a finer line, hedging its bets as though the boss believes he could still benefit from Boris Johnson being in power. Harry Cole, the paper’s political editor and holder of the British Cuckold Federation’s super-shameless weight championship belt, writes today, under the headline LYING OF DUTY Boris Johnson hits back at Dominic Cummings branding ‘bodies pile-up’ claim lies & ex-aide could still be ‘Chatty Rat’ that:

BORIS Johnson hit back at Dominic Cummings last night — branding leaks claiming the PM made a sick slur over the Covid crisis as “lies”.

In a plot worthy of Line of Duty, the ex-aide’s claim he had been cleared of being the “chatty rat” leaker was also dismissed…

… Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was hauled before MPs to explain why whoever leaked news of the planned November lockdown — dubbed the “chatty rat” — had still not been caught.

The mandarin insisted that no one had yet been found guilty — or cleared, which was at odds with Mr Cummings’ claim in his bombshell blog last week.

The head of the civil service was also forced to admit the “source or sources” may never be found, despite the efforts of top secret intelligence agents.

As usual, Cole is less than accurate in his reporting. Case was not “hauled before MPs”. Instead, it was a planned session intended to be focused on the Greensill Capital affair but which obviously covered the ‘chatty rat’ investigation since the Prime Minister and his press team flung the issue back into the light last Friday.

But, while it’s written in his usual clunky style, Cole’s comparison of Case’s appearance before the select committee and a Line of Duty interrogation scene is apt. The frustration viewers felt watching Jo Davidson ‘no comment’ her way through much of a tense confrontation in Sunday night’s episode was good preparation for seeing Case — not remotely as good an actor as Kelly MacDonald — stonewall the select committee.

Case’s performance recalled the old joke, first recounted in a 1948 column by Leonard Lyons, that “An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.” An empty Uber had rocked up outside the committee room and out stepped Simon Case. His evidence was less ‘playing it with a straight bat’ and more ‘denying you have a bat, knowledge of who might have the bat, or even if a bat has been used since an investigation into bats and perhaps even balls is still ongoing’.

I think Downing Street will be pretty delighted with Case’s efforts though. He said nothing and contributed nothing further to the teetering tower of details on the various scandals beyond an admission that the so-called ‘chatty rat’ may never be found. It was a performance best described as Sir Humphrey after several rounds of CBT — finding lots of mild words to say very little.

Over at The Daily Telegraph, the paper’s royal muckraker Camilla Tominey is deployed to profile Case — who was formerly the Duke of Cambridge’s ‘right hand man’ — and also reaches for the Yes, Minister comparison. She writes that he is the “respectable face of Number 10”, “the ‘Rolls Royce of Sir Humphreys'“ and a “patriotic to his core” “Barbour jacket-wearing former securocrat”.

Meanwhile, Sherelle Jacobs — a Daily Telegraph columnist and therefore almost as far away from an “ordinary person” as you can get — purports to tell us what those ‘ordinary people’ think. She writes:

There is nothing like a Westminster scandal to expose the chasm between the public and the metropolitan commentariat. While the chattering classes salivate with appallment over claims that Boris Johson was willing to let “the bodies pile high” to avoid a third lockdown, and the Left launch a Twitter revolution against Tory sleaze, ordinary people merely feel irritation.

At this time of national crisis, the Dominic Cummings saga seems a decadent distraction. Tory backbenchers who are no Boris loyalists report not to have received a single letter from constituents on the affair; they are more preoccupied by the prudence of low traffic neighbourhoods as high streets recover from the pandemic, and cancer waiting lists.

Imagine writing an opinion column beneath the masthead of The Daily Telegraph and believing that you are not part of “the metropolitan commentariat” or “the chattering classes”. It’s also rich to push the “no one is interested in this scandal” line while writing a column… about the scandal. Is the same angle taken by a depressingly large number of BBC News reporters and presenters. If the story matters — and it does — it's a journalist’s job to explain why readers, listeners, and viewers should care about it.

Jacobs continues:

Anecdotes on the doorstep, Red Wall polling, even the letters pages in regional newspapers all point to the same thing: even among more innately authoritarian citizens who believe No 10 “locked down to late”, many have already judged and exonerated the PM.

It’s that familiar refrain again — “The public know that the Prime Minister is unreliable, incompetent, and corrupt! They’ve priced that in!” Sadly I think it’s true for a significant number of people, if only to the extent that they think all politicians are feckless and self-serving.

Jacobs’ conclusion — “No 10 must rise above it and focus on more pressing matters.” — is the line that will continue to be taken by ministers. There’s a fire break coming up for them with the local elections next month and when the Conservatives do surprisingly well and Labour tanks, the media coverage will talk of a resurgent Johnson — title of his most cursed sex tape — and the ‘bodies’ scandal will be stuffed in the bulging file of Boris Johnson’s greatest shits.

The Daily Mail and the continuity remainers of FBPE are currently united in the hope that this is THE END GAME, we’re not there yet. Johnson still has a huge parliamentary majority, polling numbers that look favourable, a cabinet of non-entities, and a backbench stuffed with backstabbers who are apt to trip over their own shoelaces and land on the knife.

Scandals had great effect when there was still a working concept of shame. Boris Johnson has none. His superpower is shamelessness and even the current avalanche of stories are not powerful enough Kryptonite.