Shuttling between the lectern of the Downing Street briefing room and the despatch box of the House of Commons, Boris Johnson is still grieving. Still wearing a mask of desperate sadness for the more than 100,000 people who have died. Still somewhat peeved, possibly even perplexed, potentially as far as disappointed, at how it came to be, under his supervision, that the United Kingdom should have the highest per capita death toll of any nation on Earth.
He spent long hours in the House of Commons on Wednesday. He’s still “sad”, just as he was on the front page of The Sun on Wednesday morning. His sadness is as “heartfelt” as it was on the front of the Daily Mail.
Several lifetimes ago, some of us can remember somebody else standing in that spot, jabbing his finger in the air and telling the person opposite him, to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”.
Still, there was less to worry about back then. Johnson, meanwhile, is still so grief stricken he probably didn’t even know he was still in yesterday’s clothes. Still too sad to find a second to pull a comb through his hair, as one might ordinarily do when one finds oneself as the public face for a nation grieving fully 100,000 of its people.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, for some reason wanted to know quite how it had come to be that the scale of his sadness was so severe. How had the number of people whose death he was so sad about, come to be so stupefyingly, jaw droppingly high?
But now, alas, was not the time. The prime minister was just too sad for all that. “There will be a time to reflect,” he said. “To learn the lessons, but I don’t think that time is now, when there are 37,000 people still in hospital.”
We can only assume the prime minister’s refusal to learn lessons is in some kind of solidarity with his inner nine-year-old. The nation’s children, after all, haven’t been learning many lessons either over the past year. Later in the day, Johnson would announce that the earliest they’ll be learning lessons again will be from the beginning of March.
Maybe that will be the time for Johnson to learn some lessons, too. Who knows? Last summer was too early to learn the lessons. He said as much back then. And given another 60,000 people have died from Covid-19 since then, he has at least been true to his word.
One would think being in the middle of a mess that is deeper than any comparable or even incomparable country anywhere in the world would be an opportune time to learn some lessons. That the lesson learning is forever delayed might be partially responsible for its ever growing depth. If the prime minister had learned some lessons sooner, maybe he wouldn’t be so sad. Maybe his grief might be just that little bit less.
Maybe, just maybe, it could be that he’s not paying attention. That the lessons that must go in are ones that this particular pupil just doesn’t want to learn.
Maybe it’s an opportune time to rediscover these wise words, from the prime minister whose first anniversary is rapidly approaching: “Coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.”
The depth of his sadness looked a little lighter that day. He looked rather more like a prime minster who hadn’t overseen the death of a hundred thousand of his own people. Maybe he just didn’t have a clue. Maybe he still doesn’t.
Maybe we might also dig out a couple of other bon mots, from that day: “Humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
“And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
And yet, here we are, a year later, watching as, to take but one example, Scottish cheese companies can no longer sell their products to fellow British customers in Northern Ireland. That what the self-styled Superman has actually done is not so much supercharged trade between nations as made it impossible, even within his own?
Maybe, maybe, he’s just useless? Maybe he’s not a clue about anything. Maybe everything he touches he breaks, and someone else has to sort it out. Maybe he’s just not merely the worst public servant but quite possibly the most execrable single human being the nation has ever produced?
Maybe, however sad he looks, however deep the grief, it’s us that shall have to suffer.