It just wasn't working for the Covid Inquiry's menswear model KC

QUENTIN LETTS: It just wasn’t working for the Covid Inquiry’s menswear model KC. Boris Johnson had done his homework – and after hours on the stand, he looked more chipper than when he started

At the start of this supposed great arraignment of an election-smashing former prime minister we had Boris Agonistes. Taking his place at the Covid inquiry, Boris Johnson seemed miserable, deflated, wrung dry.

Having sworn the oath, he slumped at the witness table and was wary of the room around him.

Who could blame him when one staring, unhappy woman in the public gallery shouted ‘You’re a murderer!’, and when four others (soon ejected) held up signs saying ‘The dead can’t hear your apologies’?

The grief of these protesters felt performative and political. Please, we are all victims of that wretched virus. Some of us lost siblings because lockdown was too tight, not too lax.

Mr Johnson arrived at the inquiry building near London’s Paddington station some three hours early, under cover of pre-dawn darkness, to avoid the howling mob.

By the time the day’s hearing ended just before five o’clock it was, however, a quite different Boris: talking faster; leaning back expansively in the witness box’s graphite, ergonomic chair; even rolling his eyes at some of the loopier propositions being put to him by Hugo Keith KC, lead counsel to the inquiry.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives evidence at the COVID-19 Inquiry on December 6

Mr Johnson claimed that any slowness by him to appreciate the threat of Covid only mirrored the indecision of the scientists who were advising him

Mr Johnson claimed that any slowness by him to appreciate the threat of Covid only mirrored the indecision of the scientists who were advising him. He denied having wiped his mobile telephone of information. If the inquiry’s sleuths had known him as long as I have, they would realise he was never clued-up enough to have done anything remotely technological.

As for the alleged ‘toxic culture’ at Downing Street – civil servants have repeatedly waved wet handkerchiefs about Dominic Cummings and other brutes calling them rude names – Mr Johnson preferred a No 10 where people felt able to challenge one another, even if that meant things becoming a little testy. If everyone had just said ‘We’re doing brilliantly’, the inquiry would have had far more cause for complaint, he argued.

‘The Thatcher and Blair governments had challenging and competing characters whose views about each other might not have been fit to print.’

he difference was that they had not had WhatsApp on which to post their fulminations. Indeed, just imagine what Michael Heseltine might have WhatsApped about Leon Brittan and Mrs T.

Mr Keith, who in a different life could have been a Dormeuil menswear model, filled his chest and exhaled ‘Mister Johnson!’ with as much theatrical disbelief as he could muster.

He said this whenever he felt he had caught his witness telling porkies – yet his polished scepticism fell on hard ground. Boris had, for once, done his homework and boned up on various minutes and committee structures.

There was a flash of anger from the star witness (I almost wrote ‘the defendant’) when Mr Keith complained that he had listened to Rishi Sunak’s worries about the bond markets. The economy ‘matters massively to the people of this country!’ spat Mr Johnson. ‘I had to go through the arguments.’

Mr Keith complained that no one had kept a minute of conversations between ministers. He’s a great one for minutes, is Hugo. Bet he’s a stickler for fish knives, too.

With rising urgency, the KC rehashed alleged failings of the Johnson government and its premier during the early stages of the pandemic. It turned out that some of the received wisdoms were plainly untrue. Remember it being said that Boris took a holiday during the February 2020 half-term? Fake news.

Hugo Keith KC questions former prime minister Boris Johnson as he gives his evidence at Dorland House in London to the Covid inquiry

In one of the allegedly damning WhatsApp exchanges, furthermore, the inquiry had mixed up who was saying what. Then Mr Keith, so punctilious about other people being on top of the facts, so precise about the day-by-day developments, did not know that 2020 was a leap year. Oops. ‘I really don’t know,’ he murmured, and the baby barristers sitting at his feet looked a little embarrassed.

One of the horrible things about this inquiry is that it has brought back that terrible time when the virus arrived and started to spread, which was followed by the miserable sequence of stolen liberties and the thousands upon thousands of lost lives.

For all the accusations from the Greek chorus members sitting in the public gallery, who blithely depict ministers as uncaring and cruel, there was a moment when Mr Johnson had to catch himself. He mentioned ‘that whole tragic, tragic year’ of 2020 and nearly crumpled into tears.

Handsome Hugo’s immaculate hairdo was tonsorial reproof to Boris’s dishevelled mop. The KC was in a crisp, new, white shirt and a beautiful suit. He occasionally ran his strong fingers over his lean, freshly shaved jaw, like one of those chaps in the Old Spice ads.

Opposite him, the witness had failed to tuck his shirt tails into his trousers. A length of pale Boris shin was visible between his socks and trousers.

Mr Keith reheated some of those sweary messages sent by Mr Cummings, the coprolalic former No 10 adviser. How disgraceful that serious figures should be so gossipy and disobliging about their colleagues, we were told.

One hesitates to say this, but it is not impossible that senior members of the judiciary have been known, at the long table of The Garrick Club, to say pretty bloody things about their brothers and sisters of the bar.

Not for the first time, the inquiry seemed unworldly about how politics works. Mr Johnson had to explain that political figures are forever plotting against each other and trying to get one another sacked. It’s how Westminster and Whitehall has always been.

Then some inconsistency. Mr Keith was aghast that the cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, might have been sacked. Moments later, however, he was equally aghast that Boris had not sacked Matt Hancock. It was as if, in the world of inquiry lawyers, mandarins are beyond reproach yet elected politicians are cannon-fodder.

Time and again Mr Keith ‘put it to you, Mr Johnson’. When barristers say ‘I put it to you’ they mean ‘You were in all this up to your oxters from the start, weren’t you, Dr Crippen?’ Time and again the sallies fell blunt. It just wasn’t working for Hugo yesterday.

Every county cricket pro has days like that, when the timing isn’t quite right and the ball won’t fly off the bat’s driving spot. The judge upbraided her KC a couple of times. Maybe he has been getting too much of the publicity.

If the intention here was to discredit Boris – and that has been the direction of traffic for much of this inquiry’s opening months – then it failed. As can happen with incoming surf, a potentially enormous, body-upending breaker proved markedly less formidable when it finally reached shore.

‘All rise!’ To our feet we had to clamber each time that Judge Hallett, empress of all she surveys, waddled to her elevated seat. Funny little pudding. She had ditched the designer scarf of last month and seemed to make more interventions. She opened the day with a stern ticking-off, aimed either at the witness or figures in Whitehall, for anyone considering leaking evidence to the media.

Blabbing to the newspapers was verboten, she averred. Her tantrum struck me as pointless, pompous and politically naive.

ost of the arguments heard here have already been aired publicly. Inquiry evidence is hardly market-sensitive. Again, a hint of democratic shortfall from the legal bods. And it was the inquiry’s ad hominem line of questioning that has made witnesses defensive.

There wasn’t a spare seat in the house. Lawyers were out in abundance, row upon row of ’em, all on the public meter, gawping at the burly blond ex-PM who has been so demonised by the establishment in recent years.

Bereaved: Kirsten Hackman, Michelle Rumball, Fran Hall and Kathryn Butcher were ejected after they held up signs saying ‘The dead can’t hear your apologies’

The legal over-casting was worthy of Cecil B DeMille. From my perch on the tiny Press bench I could see 50 lawyers, and there were plenty more behind the pillars beyond that. A new paper sign had been pinned to a wall, instructing the public not to enter Zone E, where many of the lawyers sit.

There had been long queues to gain admission to the building. The police were out in force: uniformed officers on Eastbourne Terrace, plain-clothes Special Branch lads in the corridor, and a couple of burly bodyguards in the hearing room itself.

With all the media hoopla, this had promised to be a modern equivalent of the impeachment of Warren Hastings, an 18th-century attempt to discredit a politician’s judgment. That lasted for seven years. Funnily enough, this bloated inquiry is expected to last nearly the same length of time.

Yesterday’s hearings stretched to a mere six and three-quarter hours, with more to follow today. Lady Hallett accepted that it had been a very long day for the witness, but one suspects he felt more chipper by late afternoon than he had first thing in the morning. And there is one thing Boris Johnson had going for him, way above any eminence of judges or KCs or senior officials, and it remains valid even after his toppling from office: he was our elected head of government.

For good or ill, right or wrong, lockdown or liberty, he had the stamp of democratic validity. That must never be made subservient to the pettifogging of hindsight.

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