The first was his readiness to admit to the chaos that characterised his government’s early response to the crisis in spring 2020. The second was his later denial of the suggestion that his administration was an operational madhouse that turned off potential staff members and sapped morale.
As ever with Britain’s former prime minister, he was prepared to speak out of both sides of his mouth as he began his two-day appearance at the inquiry, chaired by Heather Hallett.
“Incoherent… bewildered… frazzled.” These were some of the choice descriptions Johnson used for how he and his advisers felt as the full, brutal nature of the pandemic unfolded more than 3½ years ago.
The former prime minister defended himself from suggestions by inquiry counsel Hugo Keith that he was too hands-off in January and February 2020, as evidence began to emerge from China and Italy about the carnage Covid wrought. He said he had let health secretary Matt Hancock take the lead.
But he admitted that as more data rolled in during February and March about Covid’s death rate and contagiousness, he “should have twigged” the danger earlier, and he and his government “vastly underestimated” what lay ahead. He conceded that Britain should have locked down harder and sooner than it did.
Later in the afternoon, when Keith challenged Johnson on the in-fighting that developed in Number 10 under the reign of his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, the former prime minister played down the impact of the chaos.
“My job was to get a load of quite disparate, quite challenging characters to keep going,” said Johnson, as Keith presented WhatsApp evidence of a variety of clashes.
Johnson said a raft of profane exchanges with his advisers was a reflection of “the anxiety of a group of people doing their level best, who cannot see an easy solution, and who are naturally self-critical and critical of others”.
He denied a suggestion that the “toxic atmosphere” meant people did not want to work there. Cummings, for example, clashed repeatedly with Hancock and also then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill who was forced out.
As Johnson ducked and dived, the criminal barrister Keith struggled to land a knockout blow in 5½ hours. The former prime minister left the building at 5.30pm to a chorus of boos from protesters. He is due back on Thursday to do it all over again.
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