On Wednesday 27th May, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appeared before the House of Commons Liaison Committee, to answer questions about the coronavirus crisis. The Liaison Committee is made up of all the Chairs of Select Committees, which are where much of the serious business of government is done. The proceedings are available online, and contrast markedly with Hansard reports from the House of Commons, where the atmosphere is typically gladiatorial, with a lot of political point-scoring. In Select Committees members from a mix of parties aim to work constructively together. It is customary for the Prime Minister to give evidence to the Liaison Committee three times a year, but this was Boris Johnson's first appearance.
The circumstances were extraordinary. The PM himself did not look well: perhaps not surprising when one considers that he was in intensive care with COVID-19 in April, only leaving hospital on 12th April, with a new baby born on 29th April. Since then, the UK achieved the dubious distinction of having one of the worst rates of COVID-19 infection in the world. Then, last weekend a scandal broke around Dominic Cummings, Chief Advisor to the PM, who gave a Press Conference on Monday to explain why he had been travelling around the country with his wife and son, when both he and his wife had suspected COVID-19.
I watched the Liaison Committee live on TV and was agog. There had been fears that the Chair, Bernard Jenkin, would give the PM an easy time. He did not; he chaired impeccably, ensuring committee members stuck to time and that the PM stuck to the point. Questions were polite but challenging, regardless of the political affiliation of the committee member. Did the PM rise to the challenge? This was not the sneering, combative PM that we saw in Brexit debates – he no doubt could see that would not go down well with this committee. Rather, the impression he gave was of a man who was winging it and relying on his famous charm in the hope that bluster and bonhomie would win the day. Alas, they did not.
Intrigued by Johnson's strategy – if it can be called that – for answering questions, I have spent some time poring over the transcript of the proceedings, and realised in so doing that I have the material for a new Bingo game. When watching the PM answer questions, you have a point for each of the following strategies you identify. If you do the drinking game version, it may ease the angst otherwise generated by listening to the leader of our nation.
PalteringThis term refers to a common strategy of politicians of appearing to answer a question, without actually doing so. It can give at least a superficial impression that the question has been answered, while deflecting to a related topic. In the following exchange, 'I have no reason to believe' is a big red flag for paltering. The Chair asked what advice the PM had sought from the Cabinet Secretary about Cummings' behaviour in relation to compliance with the code of integrity, and the PM replied:
I have no reason to believe that there is any dissent from what I said a few days ago.Asked whether Scottish and Welsh first ministers had any influence on the approach to lockdown (Q14)
Stephen, we all work together, and I listen very carefully to what Mark says, to what Arlene and Michelle say, to what Nicola says. Of course we think about it together.Response to Jeremy Hunt on why there were delays in implementing testing
As you know, Jeremy, we faced several difficulties with this virus. First, this was a totally new virus and it had some properties that everybody was quite slow to recognise across the world. For instance, it is possible to transmit coronavirus when you are pre-symptomatic—when you do not have symptoms—and I do not think people understood that to begin with.When Hunt later asked the straightforward question "Why don't we get our test results back in 24 hours", (Q45) Johnson replied:
That is a very good question. Actually, we are reducing the time—the delay—on getting your test results back. I really pay tribute to Dido Harding and her team. The UK is now testing more people than any other country in Europe. She has got a staff now of 40,000 people, with 7,500 clinicians and 25,000 trackers in all, and they are rapidly trying to accelerate the turnaround time.When asked by Caroline Noakes about the specific impact of phased school opening on women's ability to get back to work (Q73), Johnson answered a completely different question:
I think your question, Caroline, is directed at whether or not we have sufficient female representation at the top of Government helping us to inform these decisions, and I really think we have
This could take the form of bland agreement with the questioner, but without any clear commitment to action. Greg Clark asked (Q27) why we have a policy of 2 meters for social distancing when the WHO recommends 1 meter. The response was
...You are making a very important point, one that I have made myself several times—many times—in the course of the debates that we have had.Pressed further on whether he had asked SAGE whether the 2-meter rule could be revised (Q32) he replied
I can not only make that commitment—I can tell you that I have already done just that, so I hope we will make progress.Asked about firms who put their employees on furlough and then threatened them with redundancy (Q99), Johnson agreed this was a Very Bad Thing, but did not actually undertake to do anything about it.
...You are raising a very important point, Huw. This country is nothing without its workforce—its labour. We have to look after people properly, and I am well aware of some of the issues that are starting to arise. People should not be using furlough cynically to keep people on their books and then get rid of them. We want people back in jobs. We want this country back on its feet. That is the whole point of the furlough scheme.Asked about how the Cabinet were consulted about the unprecedented Press Conference by Cummings (Q9), the PM was remarkably vague, replying:
...I thought that it would be a very good thing if people could understand what I had understood myself previously, I think on the previous day, about what took place—and there you go. We had a long go at it.Asked to be specific about advice to parents who are in the same situation as Dominic Cummings re childcare (Q 21)
...The clear advice is to stay at home unless you absolutely have to go to work to do your job. If you have exceptional problems with childcare, that may cause you to vary your arrangements; that is clear.The use of the word 'clear' in the PM responses is often a flag for vagueness.
A direct question by Greg Clark on whether contact tracing was compulsory or advisory (Q34) led to a confused answer:
We intend to make it absolutely clear to people that they must stay at home, but let me be clear—When the questioner followed up to ask whether it was law or advice, he continued:
We will be asking people to stay at home. If they do not follow that advice, we will consider what sanctions may be necessary—financial sanctions, fines or whatever.It is not always easy to distinguish vagueness from paltering. The PM has a tendency to agree that something is a Very Good Thing, to speak in glowing and over-general terms about initiatives, and about his desire to implement them, without any clear commitment to do more than 'looking at' them. Here he is responding to Robert Halfon on whether there will be additional resources for children whose education has been adversely affected by the shutdown (Q63)
The short answer is that I want to support any measures we can take to level up. You know what we want to do in this Government. There is no doubt that huge social injustice is taking place at the moment because some kids are going to have better access to tutoring and to schooling at home, and other kids are not going to get nearly as much, and that is not fair.and again, when Halfon asked about apprenticeships (Q64)
All I will say to you, Rob, is that I totally agree that apprenticeships can play a huge part in getting people back on to the jobs market and into work, and we will look at anything to help people.Halfon pressed on, asking for an apprenticeship guarantee, but the PM descended further into vagueness.
We will be doing absolutely everything we can to get people into jobs, and I will look at the idea of an apprenticeship guarantee. I suppose it is something that we would have to work with employers to deliver.Other examples came from answers to Darren Jones, who asked about financial support to different sectors, and payments after the furlough scheme ended; e.g. the response to Q89:
We are going to do everything we can, Darren, to get everybody back into work.
DeferralThis was the first strategy to appear, in response to a question by the Chair (Q2) about when the committee might expect to see him again. Johnson made it clear he wasn't going to commit to anything:
You are very kind to want to see me again more frequently, even before we have completed this session, but can I possibly get back to you on that? Obviously, there is a lot on at the moment.Stephen Timms asked about people who were destitute because, despite having leave to remain, they had no recourse to public funds when they suddenly lost their jobs (Q68). The PM responded:
I am going to have to come back to you on that, Stephen.It is perhaps unfair to count this one as deliberate strategy: Johnson seemed genuinely baffled as to how 100,000 children could be living in destitution in a civilised country.
When asked by Mel Stride about whether there would be significant increases in the overall tax burden, the PM replied:
I understand exactly where you are going with your question, Mel, but I think you are going to have to wait, if you can, until the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, brings forward his various proposals.
Refusal to answerRefusals were mostly polite. An illustration appeared early in the proceedings, when asked by the Chair about Dominic Cummings (Q6), the PM replied:
I do think that is a reasonable question to ask, but as I say, we have a huge amount of exegesis and discussion of what happened in the life of my adviser between 27 March and 14 April. Quite frankly, I am not certain, right now, that an inquiry into that matter is a very good use of official time. We are working flat out on coronavirus.So the question is accepted as reasonable, but we are asked to understand that it is not high priority for a PM in these challenging times.
Asked by Meg Hillier whether the Cabinet Secretary should see evidence provided by Cummings, the PM responds that this is inappropriate – again arguing this would be a distraction from higher priorities:
I think, actually, I would not be doing my job if I were now to shuffle this problem into the hands of officials, who are—believe me, Meg—working flat out to deal with coronavirus, as the public would want.At times, when paltering had been detected, and a follow-up question put him on the spot, Johnson simply dug his heels in, often claiming to have already answered the question. Asked whether the Cabinet Secretary has interviewed Cummings (Q8), Johnson replied:
I am not going to go into the discussions that have taken place, but I have no reason to depart from what I have already said.And asked whether he'd seen evidence to prove that allegations about Cummings were false (Q17), the PM again replied:
I don’t want to go into much more than I have said—Asked by Jeremy Hunt on when a 24-hour test turnaround time would be met (Q48), the rather remarkable reply was:
I am not going to give you a deadline right now, Jeremy, because I have been forbidden from announcing any more targets and deadlines.
Challenge questionerThis strategy where unwelcome questions were dismissed as either having false premises, and/or being politically motivated. Pete Wishart (SNP) asked if Cummings' behaviour would make people less likely to obey lockdown rules (Q10). Johnson did not engage with the question, denied any wrongdoing by Cummings and added:
Notwithstanding the various party political points that you may seek to make and your point about the message, I respectfully disagree.Similar phrases are seen in response to Yvette Copper (Q24), who was accused of political point-scoring, and then blamed for confusing the British public (see also Churchillian gambit, below):
I think that this conversation, to my mind, has illuminated why it is so important for us to move on, and be very clear with the British public about how we want to deal with that, and how we want to make progress. And, frankly, when they hear nothing but politicians squabbling and bickering, it is no wonder that they feel confused and bewildered.And in response to a similar point from Simon Hoare (Q25)
...what they [the people] want now is for us to focus on them and their needs, rather than on a political ding-dong about what one adviser may or may not have done
False claimThis doesn't always involve lying; it can be unclear whether or not the PM knows what is actually the case. But there was at least one instance in his evidence where what he said is widely reported as untrue. Intriguingly, this was not an answer to a direct question, but rather an additional detail when asked about testing in care homes by Jeremy Hunt (Q44)
Do not forget that, as Chris Hopson of NHS Providers has said, every discharge from the NHS into care homes was made by clinicians, and in no case was that done when people were suspected of being coronavirus victims. Actually, the number of discharges from the NHS into care homes went down by 40% from January to March, so it is just not true that there was some concerted effort to move people out of NHS beds into care homes. That is just not right.A report by ITV news asserted that, contrary to this claim, places in hospitals were block booked for discharged NHS patients.
The Churchillian gambitWhen allowed to divert from answering questions, the PM would attempt the kind of rhetoric that had been so successful in Brexit debates, referring to what 'the people' wanted, and to government attempts to 'defeat the virus'.
For instance, this extended response to Q9 re Dominic Cummings;
What we need to do really is move on and get on to how we are going to sort out coronavirus, which is really the overwhelming priority of the people of this countryAfter a lengthy inquisition by Yvette Cooper, culminating in a direct question about whether he put Dominic Cummings above the national interest (Q24), we again had the appeal to what the British public want.
I think my choice is the choice that the British people want us all to make, Yvette, and that is, as far as we possibly can, to lay aside party political point-scoring, and to put the national interest first, and to be very clear with the British public about what we want to do and how we want to take this country forward.Overall, there were four mentions of 'getting the country back on its feet', including this statement, appended to a question on whether sanctions would be needed to ensure compliance with contact tracing (Q58)
Obviously, we are relying very much on the common sense of the public to recognise the extreme seriousness of this. This is our way out. This is our way of defeating the virus and getting our country back on its feet, and I think people will want to work together-And in response to a further request for clarification about Dominic Cummings from Darren Jones (Q94)
It is my strong belief that what the country wants is for us to be focusing on how to go forward on the test and trace scheme that we are announcing today, and on how we are going to protect their jobs and livelihoods, and defeat this virus.In all these exchanges, the 'British people' are depicted as decent, long-suffering people, who are having a bad time, and may be anxious or confused. During Brexit debates, this might have worked, but the problem is that now a large percentage of people of all political stripes are just plain angry, and telling them that they want to 'move on' just makes them angrier.
Ironic politenessThe final characterstic has less to do with content of answers than with their style. British political discourse is a goldmine for researchers in pragmatics – the study of how language is used. Attacking your opponent in obsequiously polite language has perhaps arisen in response to historical prohibitions on uncivil discourse in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson is a master of this art, which can be used to put down an opponent while getting a laugh from the audience. He had to be careful with the Liaison Committee, but his comments that they were 'kind to want to see me' and that he was 'delighted to be here today' were transparently insincere, and presumably designed to amuse the audience while establishing his dominance as someone who could choose whether to attend or not.
The final exchange between the Chair and the PM was priceless. The PM reiterated his enjoyment of his session with the committee but refused to undertake to return, because he was 'working flat out to defeat coronavirus and get our country back on its feet'. The Chair replied:
I should just point out that the questions on which you hesitated and decided to go away and think were some of the most positive answers you gave, in some respects. That is where we want to help. I hope you will come back soon.I read that to mean, on the one hand, most answers were useless, but on the other hand, where the PM had pleaded for deferral, he would be held to account, and required to provide responses to the Committee in future. We shall see if that happens.