For the second time in six days Grant Shapps was asked to do front of house at the daily Downing Street press conference. Let that thought sink in for a moment. Given that Shapps is a man clearly out of his depth in a puddle, there can only be four explanations for this.
Either the relatively competent ministers, such as Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock, have said they’re going to work to rule from now on and limit their appearances. Or Boris Johnson knows there are so many duds in the cabinet – Where’s Priti? – that Shapps is the best he’s got.
Or Grant has managed to convince Boris that he’s actually two separate people; that his alter ego of Michael Green is a real person. Or – and this is the most likely – the government has admitted defeat and has chosen to turn the briefing into a piece of Dadaist performance art. The coronavirus deconstructed through interpretive dance.
Not that Shapps isn’t a trier. His natural level is as a salesman flogging dodgy cleaning appliances in the graveyard slot of an online shopping channel. But for the press briefings he has made an effort to up his game by doing his impersonation of Chris Tarrant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Smile glued on, boundless enthusiasm and a huge round of applause for Emma from Walsall who will be going home tonight with a bumper prize of £2,000.
Shapps began with the tricky terms and conditions of today’s coronavirus competition. Some 126,064 tests had been completed in the previous 24 hours. OK so some of them were on the same people and many of them were kits that had been mailed out, but it was still a new record for the show so could everyone please show their appreciation.
The transport secretary then mentioned the daily death figure. This was very sad, he said. Though he didn’t sound particularly sad. Mostly because difficult, negative emotions aren’t in his repertoire. He didn’t want the audience to be sad. So how about another big shout out for the UK having the highest fatality ratings in Europe? Just think of the commercial revenue that could generate if there were any businesses left with spare cash to spend on advertising.
After a brief recap of the government’s new messaging service – Stay Alert because the guidelines of both to Stay at Home and Go Back to Work were thoroughly confusing – Shapps got stuck into the gameshow proper. He didn’t want anyone to go home unhappy, so how about thinking of all the cheerful things about the pandemic? With no one using the trains, Network Rail had had plenty of time to upgrade the infrastructure and was now well ahead of schedule on some projects. And with far fewer people using their cars, the road improvements to the A14 had been completed seven months early. Felix from Felixstowe, you will be going home with £16,000.
Who wants to be a two billionaire? Shapps did. Which is why he was able to announce a special cash bonus for roads and rails, with £1.7bn dedicated just to filling potholes. At the back of the studio, the show’s producers had a minor heart attack. No one had told them Chris/Grant was going to start spending their money like this. Within minutes, the department of transport had had to issue a clarification. The minister had got a bit carried away. The £2bn wasn’t actually new money. He was merely re-announcing money that had already been promised. Still, no one would care by the time the show was repeated on ITV3.
The starter questions from the public proved to be unusually tricky. Helen wanted to know whether universities would be going back in September and if her son should take out a £9k loan for an education he wasn’t going to get. Shapps grinned and commiserated. That’s a question he would like answered himself as he also had a son at university. Perhaps he could phone a friend. Predictably Gavin Williamson didn’t answer his call.
Shapps also had to ask the audience when questioned about deaths in care homes as he didn’t have a clue what the answer was. Using Boris as your role model when preparing for a press conference is maybe not such a good idea. “Um in Europe, the death rate in care homes is 50%,” he said cheerfully. “But in the UK it was only 25%.” So if old people did their bit by dying a bit quicker, we would soon be as good as the Italians and Spanish. Can’t have Johnny Foreigner outperforming us on mortality figures.
The rest of the presser was just as unilluminating. Shapps is a model of equal opportunities in not knowing anything about anything. He didn’t know about the antibody tests but he was pleased that it was a positive question. He likes positivity. He had no idea of how many elective operations had been cancelled, but as he had used up all his lifelines, could he just say he hoped it wasn’t really that many.
Nor did he know quite what to do about bailing out Transport for London. Shapps is as bewildered as Boris that asking people to go back to work and social distancing are frequently mutually exclusively pastimes. “I’m going to answer this question head on,” he said confidently. Head on as in avoiding it completely. When it came to the big ticket question on camping and caravan holidays, Shapps chose to bank what he had got. He’d be going home with 33,614. Though the real figure was probably nearer 50,000. Just a shame it was the Covid-19 dead and not pounds sterling.