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Cometh the hour, cometh the man. When the UK has become the first European country to record more than 50,000 coronavirus deaths and the entire staff inside No 10 is squabbling over who gets to have the prime minister’s ear by becoming his chief of staff, the last thing the government wanted was another inconvenient Downing Street press briefing. But one had been promised and one must be delivered. And in such tricky circumstances there was clearly only one minister suitable for the job. Step forward Alok Sharma.
Not even the business secretary is entirely sure how he came to be business secretary. He doesn’t even seem to have much interest in politics, let alone business. Rather it was a case of one thing leading to another. He had seen which way the wind was blowing in the Tory leadership contest, had declared himself a huge fan of Boris Johnson, despite never having knowingly declared any great enthusiasm for Brexit, and was rewarded – to his and everyone else’s surprise – with a place in the cabinet.
Perhaps Boris had spotted what others had missed. That Sharma is blessed with the gift of almost never saying anything interesting. Nearly all press conferences with him could go on for a couple of hours and no one would be any the wiser. On the rare occasions, he commits news then it is guaranteed to have been a mistake. Unfortunately for Sharma and Boris, this was one such occasion. Though the only saving grace for the business secretary was that he appeared completely unaware just how badly he had screwed up.
The briefing had started off as mind-numbingly dull and pointless as everyone had intended. Sharma began by rattling off the latest upward trend in hospitalisations and deaths, before basically admitting the economy was a bit screwed and that a vaccine was still some way off. The only time his voice deviated from a monotone – Sharma finds it difficult to emote and read at the same time – was when he mentioned four firms that had taken on a few extra staff to make PPE. The recovery starts here.
Stephen Powis, the national medical director for NHS England, was equally determined not to commit news. He had seen how some parts of the media had turned on Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance for being the bearer of bad news and was buggered if he was going to put himself in the firing line. He restricted himself to showing just the one slide with the statistics Sharma had just read out, and then waffled on a bit about the vaccine cavalry being someway off. These Boris John Ford western metaphors are as contagious as the virus itself.
Initially it looked as if the business secretary was going to survive the questions unscathed. A member of the public called Chris got halfway through an intelligent question about how any vaccine would be rolled out before realising that it was Sharma he was talking to so there was no chance of getting an intelligent answer. Sure enough, Alok did not disappoint: confident to admit his ignorance he just burbled on about being sure that those that needed it most would get it first. Fair to say, Sharma is not a details man.
The trouble started with a question from the BBC about reports that Brexit could disrupt the supply chain for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Rather sweetly, Sharma didn’t even seem to sense the danger in the question. Perhaps this was because this was the one part of his brief he does understand and he was keen to share his excitement and wisdom with everyone watching. Yes, he said, Brexit was going to bring huge disruptions to almost every business which was why he had just started a series of webinars so that companies had a chance to prepare.
He didn’t seem to realise there was less than 50 days before the UK left the EU, that there was virtually no chance of businesses being prepared in time as the government hadn’t even yet arrived at a deal or no deal and vaccines wouldn’t be exempt from the chaos. If Covid doesn’t kill you, then Brexit will.
From there, it all went downhill. Asked about the current infighting within Downing St and the resignation of Lee Cain, all Sharma could manage was that everyone was working hard to protect lives and livelihoods. Principally their own. When Dominic Cummings single-handedly destroyed the government’s coronavirus messaging with his jaunts to Durham and his trips to Specsavers he had done so with only the good of the country in mind. Likewise, Cain had only ever wanted to teach the world to sing. Asked who Joe Biden’s chief of staff should call now that Boris didn’t have one, the best that Sharma could offer was that he was sure there was a reassuring answer-phone message about the climate crisis on the Downing Street switch board number.
Powis could tell the presser was falling apart and hurriedly referred subsequent questions about Brexit disruptions to the vaccine supply chain back to Sharma. By now you could see that even the business secretary was beginning to realise he might be in trouble. Even if he didn’t know quite why or just how much. He first mumbled something about being very hopeful about the vaccine but then he couldn’t prevent himself from telling the truth. Because at heart, Sharma is one of the few honest ministers in the cabinet. So he resorted to his first answer of there being problems and was last seen being dragged away by security shouting “webinars”.
You could hear the cries of despair coming from what was left of the Downing Street communications team. They had counted on their man not to mess up, and he had just let them down. It was turning into one of those days. Or, as the rest of us call it, one of those years.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: No 10 wanted to pull off a Covid briefing – but they called Alok Sharma | UK news