Boris Johnson runs his hands through his now lengthy, wispy white-blond locks, the shell-pink of his skull just visible, with an exasperated expression and protests: “I’m starting to get dreadlocks at the back.” Well, little chance of that. But, like everyone else, the Prime Minister can’t wait for this Saturday, July 4, when hairdressers will open again, along with London’s bars and restaurants.
“I will be having a haircut as soon as I can. It’s booked,” he says with his usual jovial punchiness, leaning back with ease on a cream sofa, in the ministerial inner sanctum behind the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons, a copy of his friend Andrew Roberts’s biography of Churchill tucked neatly on the shelf behind him. A trip to a pub is also planned, he admits, and a night out with fiancée Carrie Symonds, mother of his two-month-old son Wilfred, although he remains tight-lipped as to where. “We have plans, we are definitely going to mark the event,” he says, looking momentarily coy. On family matters, he remains firmly quiet — no we can’t know if Wilfred will attend state or private school and who is doing the night feeds is not going to be addressed, he says, looking slightly sheepish.
Otherwise, however, there is a sense that the PM, like the country, is opening up again after the double ordeals of the dizzyingly high peak of coronavirus deaths in spring and his own eyeballing with death in the intensive care unit of St Thomas’ Hospital.
In the Commons, he has regained some of his old bounce — slapping the despatch box repeatedly for emphasis. This week he used a keynote speech to map out what Johnsonism might look like, combining big spending (or so he claims) and levelling up.
Still, has the experience of the past 100 days changed him? “People keep asking me this in a sort of slightly, you know, hopeful way, as though there is some particular characteristic of mine that they hope will somehow have changed, that I will have evolved in some way into some new order of primate,” he muses, grinning wryly. Before insisting, “I’m very much the same as I was. I had fantastic care in St Thomas’ and really will be indebted forever to the nurses and doctors and all the medical staff. Many, many thousands were much less lucky than me and we have to think about them. The best thing I think we can do now is to fix the damage, to fix the crisis, to get the disease under control.”
You do, however, sense a new sombreness behind the usual jovial flair; his serious mood matching the unpleasant ambiguity of balancing sympathy around the vast job losses being announced every day with his positive messaging of “Build, Build, Build”. He repeats several times the phrase, “we will continue to put our arms around people.”
Has Covid-19, like the Roman slave, reminded him of his mortality? “Memento homo, quod cinis es,” he recites, his Latin quoting bringing a broad smile (“remember, o man, that thou art dust”) before he quickly turns serious again.
“No, I have plenty of reminders every day, just looking around. The medical crisis that we face, the economic crisis that we face. I have plenty of reminders of the urgency of getting on with things fast, and of ‘Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’, and the need to do things with Project Speed.”
The biggest thing he learned from the crisis and its early handling — which has been criticised — is not to dither. “You’ve got to act with great urgency, and you’ve got to plan,” he says. “People are very worried about their jobs, we are unfortunately starting to see job losses.”
Perhaps stung by Keir Starmer’s jibe in that morning’s PMQs that what he calls a “big package” of investment amounts to less than £100 per head, Johnson when pushed does reveal more is to come. “People will look back at the Thirties and they’ll say, ‘well it’s not the same’. But don’t forget that those circumstances were … actually far, far worse. What I would say to you today is that we will step it up, we will do what it takes.”
He doesn’t fidget as he talks, one leg crossed high above the other. He does try and lead the conversation off down rambling, amusing tangents to avoid tricky questions but on the whole seems intent on serious discussion. As to his health, apart from a definite air of energy being carefully conserved for when required, he looks trim and spruce in an immaculately cut suit and red-flecked blue tie. And apart from the ruffled hair, he appears more statesmanlike than the Brexit period, with calm purpose to him.
He also doesn’t look pale or wan and has been stepping up his own personal fitness by running in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, a privilege that at least one former premier has noticed with envy. How did he nab it? A quick smile, before, “My lips are sealed,” says the PM, with a finality that suggests permission perhaps came from the very top of the royal household.
But could we all be put back into lockdown? Johnson has always been clear he might take away the new freedoms if the virus spreads out of control again. But with two days to go until the pubs open, he was keen to let people know just how touch-and-go it was for the great escape to get the go-ahead so soon. “What people don’t realise is that to get to this July 4 in the shape we have … it was a pretty aggressive timetable.”
Could the whole of London be put into lockdown, like Leicester? He hopes to avoid that by “local whack-a-mole” actions, such as the temporary closure recently of two Enfield GP surgeries after small outbreaks. But, if necessary, yes, he would lockdown London. “I have got to be absolutely clear with people, the way to avoid that is to stay alert, control the virus, and save lives.”
He appeals with real urgency, leaning forward out of the sofa: “Do not undo the sacrifices you have made with reckless behaviour. The public need to stay alert and realise that the threat is not over, follow the guidance and behave responsibly so that this virus cannot re-emerge in communities across the country. We are working through our roadmap but this could easily be undone. We do not want to see businesses have to close again. Here in London the virus seems to be very much in retreat. But as I said yesterday the shark is still out there in the water.”
What about those parts of the economy, like theatres and arts, which may take months to reopen. A vaccine may be a year or more away. Will he heed the pleading from these sectors to continue furloughing beyond October so they can survive? “I’ve got to be very, very blunt with you,” said the Prime Minister, deadly serious now. “We’ve spent £120 billion supporting people, it’s a huge commitment and we have put our arms around people. The best way forward for us now is to work together to beat the virus and get the economy back on its feet. We’re going to do amazing things; we’re going to build, build, build, invest massively in our country.
“But I think people need to recognise that the particular restrictions that furlough places on you are not, in the long term, healthy either for the economy or for you as an employee.” He is clear it cannot keep being extended: “You are keeping people in suspended animation. You are stopping them from actually working. I am being absolutely frank with you, we are pushing it out until October but in the end you have got to get the economy moving.”
Where have the women in Cabinet gone? A quad of men ran the country when the PM was ill. Is this a return to macho politics? “No! Absolutely not. And I’m very proud that this is a government that was elected on a manifesto written by two women, one that has a large number of female ministers…”
Hang on, Prime Minister, out of 92 daily coronavirus briefings at No 10, just three were fronted by a female minister, Priti Patel. Johnson countered that Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, appeared at 18, albeit not as host. “You’ve got women occupying the highest offices of state,” he insists, stressing that “half the junior ministers are women.”
This is patently not true. There are 72 men to 32 women, who are mostly in health and education. And what about in Cabinet, where there are only seven women out of 26, down from 8, will we see some of these women move up to the top table come the next reshuffle? He ducks back and forth until repeatedly pressed that this is not about optics but good government (women are bearing the brunt of the economic fall-out and taking on a greater share of domestic work and childcare), at last, with a quick look at his press secretary, he finally concedes, “Yes, of course you can see women moving up…” We will be holding him to that. A culture war is rumbling on in this country and one that Johnson has not hesitated to play for advantage amongst the Tory faithful. So, as a former Oxford scholar, where does Johnson stand on the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, which has voted in favour of removing the statue.
“I’m pro-heritage. I’m pro-history, and I’m in favour of people understanding our past with all its imperfections,” he says, without hesitation. “I want to build people up, not tear people down. If we go around trying to Bowdlerise or edit our history in this way, it’s like some politician sneakily trying to change his Wikipedia entry.”
Yesterday Johnson announced that up to three million Hong Kong residents will be offered the chance to settle in the UK following China’s violation of their freedoms. Was Johnson also shifting away from allowing Chinese firm Huawei to build the 5G network?
“I remain a sinophile,” he said. “I’m not one of those who is instinctively hostile to China, far, far from it.
“But what’s happened in Hong Kong is plainly an unacceptable breach of the letter and the spirit of the Joint Declaration of principles of the basic law. It’s already having a chilling effect on free speech and civil society in Hong Kong.
“On Huawei, I’m not against investment in this country. This is an open market economy. But I don’t want to see our critical national infrastructure at risk of being in any way controlled by potentially hostile state vendors. So, we have to think very carefully about how to proceed now.”
Responding for the first time to predecessor Theresa May’s condemnation of his pick for new National Security Adviser, Brexit negotiator David Frost, as inexperienced and too political, he said she was wrong. “I didn’t hear what she said but I have the highest admiration for David Frost, and he will do an outstanding job. And by the way you know he is a very distinguished diplomat who has served in many, many different capacities.” Is Rishi Sunak a future leader of the Conservative Party? “I wouldn’t want to blight anybody’s career by offering that kind of study,” he jokes amiably, still happy to talk despite his team now winding us up. Does he get nervous when colleagues like Sunak are touted in the media as successors? “No. I’m intensely relaxed about anybody in the Conservative Party being popular.”
As we left, Johnson unprompted promises to “look after” London’s sadly darkened theatres. “We not only love them but they are massively important for the economy.” He added: “The truth is that Covid is almost bio-engineered to make things difficult for the great London economy.”
Johnson is an admirer of this newspaper’s unique Food for London campaign that has served an astonishing four million meals to vulnerable people during the pandemic. It now needs Government support to complete its charitable objective of helping feed London’s vulnerable and poor for the next three years.
“Somebody is dealing with that, I hope urgently,” said Johnson.