10 December 2023

Weekly briefing: Boris in the stocks


Boris Johnson and women. There has never been a shortage of revelations about the ex-Prime Minister’s relations with the fairer sex, but this week brought another: he didn’t have enough of them.

Speaking at the Covid Inquiry, Johnson admitted that ‘the gender balance of my team should have been better,’ and ‘during the pandemic too many meetings were too male-dominated’. But everyone who followed events at the time knows the real problem was particular males with impossible personalities.

The comments exposed the absurdity at the heart of this inquiry. When the next crisis comes, a completely different set of people, with a different distribution of chromosomes, will have to wrestle with a different set of decisions. It is therefore futile to focus so intently on the specific set of characters involved. It teaches us nothing except that Boris Johnson’s management style was chaotic and Dominic Cummings was difficult to get along with – facts that were plainly obvious to anyone who had observed their careers.

Nevertheless, representatives of multiple victims’ groups were given the opportunity to harangue the former MP for Uxbridge for his deficiencies, including a lawyer the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations, who appeared to suggest the virus was racist.

To give you an idea of how pointless the whole thing was, as I write this a strapline on the TV says ‘Breaking News: Johnson admits Barnard Castle was a bad moment for government’ – something that hasn’t been ‘breaking news’ since 2020. It is an exercise in assigning blame, not learning lessons for the future.

The Covid Inquiry was set up for failure from the start. It is presided over by a criminal judge and a criminal barrister – both are necessarily more practised in pinning down guilty men than analysing disputed scientific evidence. This perhaps explains why Hugo Keith KC seems not to understand international comparisons for excess deaths, and why far more attention has been paid to the language of WhatsApps than, for example, the quality of the modelling that determined so many of the government’s decisions.

Not a single one of the ‘modules’ that constitute the inquiry’s agenda concerns the effects and efficacy of lockdowns. As a result, there is a built-in assumption that the only mistake was not locking down sooner and more aggressively. Johnson was repeatedly questioned to this effect during his cross-examination, and it was refreshing to hear him remind inquisitors that he did have other factors to consider. 

The government’s actions in the pandemic were an unprecedented intervention in our basic freedoms which will have generational consequences. The only possible useful purpose of this spectacle is to assess what, if anything, it achieved.

Instead we are putting politicians in the stocks at a cost to the taxpayer of £1m a week. It’s not worthwhile, even as a form of retributive justice for the bereaved. As protesters who were ejected from the inquiry said, ‘the dead can’t hear your apologies’. 

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Alys Denby is Editor of CapX