Boris Johnson’s impact on history will be influenced by his appearance at the Covid inquiry.
During his time of widespread popularity, Boris Johnson frequently evaded thorough questioning – to the point of once concealing himself in a refrigerator to avoid a TV interviewer. The ex-UK leader is probably feeling anxious about his upcoming appearance at the Covid investigation next week. And for good reason.
The events taking place on Wednesday and Thursday at the inquiry’s newly renovated office in Paddington, west London, could have a significant impact on defining Johnson’s post-power reputation and legacy. This could potentially have negative consequences.
This most congenitally elusive of politicians, who thrived in the one-question-at-a-time discourse of the Commons but was deliberately shielded from detailed media interviews, faces at least 12 hours of questioning by one of the country’s top barristers, Hugo Keith KC.
The entire process will be conducted under sworn testimony, with intense scrutiny from the press and grieving family members. The level of detail will not escape Johnson’s notice, as it follows the template established by the previous prime minister.
In May 2021, Johnson revealed plans for a public investigation of the pandemic. However, his choice to postpone the gathering of evidence until the following spring was perceived as an intentional delay tactic.
After two and a half years, we find ourselves fully immersed in the situation, and instead of planning for a potential second term as the leader of the country, Johnson is now a heavily criticized former prime minister and former member of parliament.
He is currently confronting the likelihood of a demolition task in one of the limited areas of policy that he and his allies still hold onto: his handling of Covid and making the “big calls” correctly.
Johnson’s supporters claim that he will acknowledge any errors made and take ownership of them, rather than pointing fingers at others. Additionally, he will defend the achievements he sees, like the efficient distribution of vaccines and the swift reopening of the UK economy.
He is also anticipated to emphasize his duties as prime minister in managing the conflicting demands presented to him, and to suggest potential improvements to the government’s structure for handling future pandemics.
Johnson has dedicated several months to getting ready for these two days, thoroughly examining thousands of pages of evidence presented to him by the inquiry. Even though he hasn’t reviewed every single document, it is anticipated that next week’s focus will be more on the inner workings of the government rather than further disclosures about conflicts in personalities.
It will be challenging for Johnson to make his argument. The current phase of the investigation focuses on decision-making within the highest levels of government, and previous witnesses have shed a harsh and critical light on Johnson’s leadership in Downing Street.
Listening to not just avowed Johnson foes such as Dominic Cummings but a range of officials, civil servants and ministers, even those sympathetic to him, leaves the definite impression of a prime minister barely capable of making any calls at all, whether right or wrong, instead buffeting chaotically on the currents of others’ opinions.
The limited observations of Johnson have not been positive, whether from testimonies or excerpts from the journal of his former chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance.
In addition to his consistent indecision and fluctuating beliefs, the unfiltered Johnson often comes across as insincere and careless. He has argued for lifting lockdowns by suggesting that elderly Britons, who are most at risk for Covid, have already lived a full life and that the virus is simply nature’s way of managing the elderly population.
During the pandemic, Edward Udny-Lister, who served as Johnson’s chief of staff, shared a particularly damning anecdote. He contradicted his former boss by confirming that Johnson expressed a preference for “letting the bodies pile high” rather than imposing another lockdown in autumn 2020.
It is highly likely that Johnson will argue that no prime minister could escape unharmed from such thorough examination, which includes private WhatsApp messages that were never meant to be shared, much like Vallance’s diary.
Next week, Johnson will attempt to counter the issue he is currently facing. These revelations have not only caused embarrassment, such as his apparent struggle with understanding scientific concepts, but can also be unsettling and alarming.
One of the main issues has been the gradual depiction of the larger Downing Street team that Johnson has permitted to work with him. This team has been described as having a “culture of fear,” being “poisonous,” and “mad,” and has also been known for using violent and misogynistic language. A lot of the negativity is believed to revolve around Cummings, who is seen as the dominant figure in charge.
Perhaps the standout evidence so far was extracts of messages between Mark Sedwill, who started the pandemic as cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant in the UK, and Simon Case, the man who succeeded him and who is still in the job.
In a particularly incriminating statement, Case revealed that during a conversation, he informed Johnson that finding a replacement for a high-ranking No 10 staff member had been challenging due to the negative reputation of his operation, resulting in many top candidates declining the offer.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, who will have the opportunity to ask Johnson questions through their legal representative, stated that they are seeking answers regarding the timing of the first and second lockdowns and how the culture within No 10 influenced policy decisions.