Call it a win-win. That’s if your smart speakers hadn’t shunted you off to a station in Malawi. Times Radio was looking for a big name to kick off the first show of its first day broadcasting, and interviews don’t come much bigger than the prime minister. And Boris Johnson was keen to drop a gentle reminder that Radio 4’s Today still was not forgiven for its lese-majesty, which was why he had not appeared on the programme for nearly two years.
So shortly after eight in the morning Boris made his return to the first news organisation to have sacked him for lying. Not that the intervening 20 years or so have done much for his casual relationship with the truth, as he began with a long waffle about how things were going to be simultaneously remarkably hard and incredibly easy. Mainly he would be building a lot of things that he wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to pay for.
“What you can’t do, I think, at this moment, is go back to what people called austerity,” said Boris, enigmatically. “And it wasn’t actually austerity, but people called it austerity.” Most of us could have sworn that even the Tories had called the decade from 2010 the years of austerity, but Boris was having none of that. It had all been just an illusion. People might have felt social services, benefits and other government spending had been cut, but they had been labouring under a misapprehension. Compared to what it might have been, it had been a time of plenty. And now there was going to be plenty more plenty.
Surprisingly, neither of the two presenters, Stig Abell and Aasmah Mir, thought to challenge Boris on this. Nor did they raise much of an eyebrow at the trailed announcement of a £1bn schools building programme. A programme that Labour had earmarked 10 years ago and that Michael Gove himself had nixed as education minister. Still, to be generous, one could say that Boris had finally got round to admitting a mistake.
There were moments when Abell and Mir briefly threatened some more probing questions. Not least on the summary dismissal of Mark Sedwill. Mark was just too good, Boris insisted, too talented to be kept on as head of the civil service. He deserved a far more important job. Like being kicked upstairs to the Lords where he could do no damage with his remainery views.
Aasmah’s observation that most of the briefings against Sedwill seemed to have come from inside No 10 were met with the usual feigned, unconvincing innocence from the prime minister. Boris couldn’t imagine how anyone could believe Dominic Cummings might have dripped poison into receptive journalist ears. That just wasn’t Classic Dom’s style at all. The more serious question of No 10 being turned into a centralised Brexiter chumocracy with the appointment of David Frost – a man with no defence experience – to Sedwill’s former role as national security adviser went unasked.
Throughout the interview, Boris was keen to promote himself as the UK’s reincarnation of Franklin D Roosevelt. And in one way he was making a decent fist of it, as he was gradually turning the interview into something of a cosy fireside chat. There was little on why the UK had the worst coronavirus death rate in Europe, why the UK had been so slow to go into lockdown, why patients had been kicked out of hospitals and into care homes or why he was so keen to avoid any kind of national inquiry.
At one point Stig did get close to something rather more revelatory by asking what the prime minister had learned from his brush with death in intensive care. Here was a chance for Boris to get vaguely personal, to deviate from his usual standard Classic Dom-issue piffle-paffle. He could have said he wanted to be a better dad sixth or seventh time round. He could have said he had resolved to be less selfish. To go into therapy for his unresolved childhood issues. To understand why he was stuck in the permanent regression of a toddler tantrum. This is the normal stuff of near-death experiences.
But Boris can’t handle anything too real, so instead he merely said he had come to the conclusion that too many people were obese. Wowza! Something every doctor in the country has known for years. So would he be thinking of imposing a sugar tax? “Um… er …,” said Boris. Steady as she goes. But he could now do one press-up – sort of – though he was unable to explain why he had chosen to demonstrate this to journalists from the Mail on Sunday. And he’d had the £900k paint job on his toy plane. But then, there was no need, because the answer was self-evident. We have a prime minister who is having a midlife crisis in full view. Soon he will be stripped to the waist like Vladimir Putin.
The rest of the interview passed in a series of gentle lobs that were patted gently across the net. Dominic Cummings was just a great bloke who only had the good of the nation at heart. Sure Boris had some regrets, but none that immediately came to mind. And he certainly had no misgivings about not being asked about his slavish devotion to Honest Bob Jenrick. He could get used to this morning show. Perhaps he could make it a monthly date?
“Boris Johnson, thank you very much,” Aasmah signed off. As a station opener, it had been just about perfect. A chance for the prime minister to witter on about his building projects, but no real news lines or anything to frighten the horses. Aasmah, Stig and Boris all looked to the control booth, waiting for the thumbs up from Rupert Murdoch. After all, he had been everyone’s real boss for the past 20 minutes.