As Tory MPs vent over the government’s new three-tier coronavirus system, Boris Johnson appeared this evening before his party for an impromptu meeting of the 1922 committee.
Ahead of votes on the measures, the Prime Minister used Zoom to address MPs dialling in from their offices. With many Conservative MPs grumpy over the latest restriction guidelines, Johnson’s charm offensive got off to a bad start when he was over 15 minutes late. As MPs waited, they wrote complaints in the Zoom chat function – one attendee asked if this was what a circuit breaker looked like. Michael Fabricant’s offer to sing Rule Britannia once again (he began a rendition on a similar call) went unheeded.
When Johnson did make it into the room, he used his opening address to paint his government’s strategy as the ‘balanced approach’. He argued that it was the reasonable middle ground between Labour calls for a national lockdown and letting the virus rip. With Keir Starmer calling for a circuit break minutes before, Johnson said he hoped the Labour metro mayors would continue to work with the government rather than play politics. He also spoke positively of hopes for a vaccine – suggesting tech will come to the country’s aid.
When it got the the Q&A part of the session, there were audio problems. The set up meant that MPs on the call could hear Johnson but he struggled to hear them. Former prime minister Theresa May attempted to ask an audio question. When that failed, she tried calling 1922 chair Graham Brady before resorting to typing her question into the chat function. With SAGE calling for a circuit break as early as last month, May suggested Johnson put more business people on SAGE so there is more of an understanding of the economy.
However, Johnson suggested this was unlikely. He told May SAGE stood for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies because it is made up of scientists. Were he to add business people to the group it would be called ‘beige’ and you can’t have that – he said laughing to himself. One attendee suggested Johnson’s comments were close to what could be described as mansplaining.
The chat function meant that Johnson could choose which questions to answer. One question picked was ‘what can you tell me about Christmas?’. To which Johnson replied: ‘it’s a religious festival that’s been celebrated 2020 years’. He did also give a hint of an easing of restrictions come December – saying ‘we want to make sure it’s celebrated properly.
Johnson’s takeaway message on the call was that he hoped MPs would support the government in tonight’s votes. However, the reception was mixed. One attendee described the Prime Minister’s performance as ‘punchy…maybe too punchy’. Another suggests that Johnson benefitted from having his party at a distance rather than in the room. The appearance confirms that despite opposition from his own party, Johnson has no plans to change his coronavirus strategy.
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