Analysis: This is the PM’s biggest U-turn yet
By Jon Craig, chief political correspondent
Three days ago, Boris Johnson declared: “I want to be clear, we don’t want to ban Christmas, to cancel it.
“I think that would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many people in this country.
“Nor do we want to criminalise plans people may have made for some time.”
Now, in the biggest U-turn in this year of spectacular prime ministerial U-turns, he has done just that.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Johnson goaded Sir Keir Starmer – whom he regularly calls “Captain Hindsight” – repeatedly.
“All he wants to do is to lock the whole country down,” said the PM. “He is a one-club golfer; that is the only solution he has.”
The PM went on: “I wish he had had the guts just to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas.”
Those words look hollow now. And Mr Johnson can expect a furious response from Conservative MPs already bitterly opposed to his Covid restrictions.
“The Christmas household rules were explicitly approved by the House of Commons,” Mark Harper, who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said.
“So it is only right that if the Government were to seek to change them that must also be approved by a vote in the House of Commons in advance.”
And, voicing a view that has already been endorsed by many Tory MPs, Mr Harper added: “Parliament must not be bypassed.”
Challenged on his U-turn at this news conference, the PM began by saying: “Alas…” You always know grim news is coming when Boris Johnson says: “Alas…”
His answer was that he bitterly regretted the changes, but said: “When the facts change, you have to change your approach.”
It was the economist John Maynard Keynes who famously said: “When the facts change, I change my mind.”
Who’d have thought it, a Tory leader quoting the big-spending advocate Keynes?
Although, on second thoughts, after the Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spending splurge this year, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, after all.
The PM rejected the charge that he had previously been reckless and ignored warnings about the new virus, claiming the scientific advice had changed significantly in the past 24 hours.
And asked how he expected the public to follow the rules when they kept changing, he pleaded that the velocity of the disease had changed. “We simply can’t ignore that,” he said.
This was a grim 40 minutes. It was a news conference that began 11 minutes late, adding to the image of disarray in Downing Street. But at least he didn’t keep Strictly Come Dancing off the TV this time, as he did in late November.
And as he read his opening statement, the Prime Minister looked and sounded hesitant and nervous. He was sombre and muted, deflated. And well he might be.
No Yuletide quips this time, like “merry LITTLE Christmas” or “tis the season to be jolly CAREFUL”.
Surely, this was the most solemn public statement Boris Johnson has ever given. The colour – never particularly rosy – appeared drained from his face.
He looked and sounded like someone who had suffered a bereavement, he was so subdued, or taken an excruciating and winding punch in the gut.
He must have been thinking constantly of the opprobrium that will be coming his way after this.
There was no alternative, he said, to the punitive Tier 4 measures. When the virus changes its method of attack, he had to change his method of defence.
Well, critics would dispute that. Many MPs, not least the Labour leader, will argue that he should have acted sooner and made more progress by now, allowing a more normal Christmas.
It will also be argued that London and south-east England have had four different Covid restriction regimes in the past month.
First, a national lockdown in late November, then Tier 2, then Tier 3 with a five-day Christmas break and now Tier 4 with no Christmas relaxation.
The reality of the grim news announced here was brought home by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty when he was asked what he would say to people packing a bag right now to leave a Tier 4 area.
His advice: “Please unpack it.”
The grim news neatly, if brutally, summed up.