Last October, when Britain’s coronavirus case numbers were threatening to spin out of control for a second time, some of Boris Johnson’s most powerful allies in government rounded on the prime minister and told him that another lockdown was urgently needed before things got worse.
The top ministers made their case to the extremely reluctant prime minister and talked him round—but, according to a shocking account published Monday, his begrudging acceptance came accompanied by an unhinged rant about lockdowns that sounds like a King Joffrey line that was edited out of Game of Thrones for being too callous.
The Daily Mail reported that Johnson raged at the meeting that he’d only proceed with a second lockdown on the understanding that there would never be a third. The prime minister is alleged to have screamed, “No more fucking lockdowns—let the bodies pile high in their thousands!”
That account was backed up by a second publication, The Spectator, which reported Monday that “multiple people” heard the hissy fit. The typically cautious BBC News has also corroborated the version of events.
However, Downing Street issued a forceful denial that the prime minister had ever uttered the incredibly insensitive words, reportedly calling it “just another lie” about Johnson, and the prime minister personally denied making the comments when asked about it Monday afternoon.
The Mail’s unnamed source described the tense fall meeting, saying, “The PM hates the idea of lockdowns. He kept saying, ‘There’s no evidence they even work’ and that ‘it goes against everything I’ve stood for.’ But he was outnumbered—and ended up sitting in sullen silence as the others told him he had no choice.” The “bodies” rant allegedly followed.
The claims followed a week of brutal headlines for Johnson.
Downing Street has been carrying out a ferocious war of words with former chief of staff Dominic Cummings, whom Johnson reportedly blamed for the leak of texts between him and billionaire entrepreneur James Dyson. They showed Johnson personally promising to “fix” a tax issue for Dyson last year as his company started work on making ventilators.
After Cummings was named as Downing Street’s suspected leak culprit by several newspapers last week, he launched a furious attack on his old boss. In his first blog post since he was forced out of his Downing Street role at the end of last year, Cummings wrote that Johnson has fallen “far below” the standards of “competence” needed during the COVID crisis.
Cummings also accused Johnson of planning to have donors “secretly pay” for work on his official residence in Downing Street, where he lives with his fiancée Carrie Symonds. Cummings said the plan was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules on proper disclosure of political donations if conducted in the way he intended.”
Chillingly for Johnson, the Mail’s story about his alleged lockdown outburst was printed alongside a claim from an unnamed Cummings ally that the former aide kept audio recordings of key meetings. “Dom has stuff on tape,” the anonymous friend said. “They are mad to pick a fight with him because he will be able to back up a lot of his claims.”
But, regardless of whether there are tapes or not, the claim is already doing damage to Johnson’s already-battered reputation.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s pro-independence first minister, said, “Based on my experiences of him, I don’t find it impossible to believe. On the contrary, it is all too believable, but for any prime minister, for any human being, to be so glib and crass about human life is profoundly shocking.”
Leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, said, “I think, like everybody reading that, I was astonished to see those words. It’s for the prime minister, I think now, to make a public statement about that.”
Starmer added, “I think everybody will be deeply concerned—not least all those families that have lost someone during this pandemic.” As of Monday, Britain has the fifth-worst COVID-19 death toll in the world, with a reported 127,681 people having lost their lives.