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Fall guy Shapps takes turn to promote UK as ‘world beater’ in stupidity | John Crace

A few days ago, the prime minister announced that he was doing away with the daily coronavirus briefings at weekends. It was just getting too hard to find cabinet ministers who were prepared to give up their Saturdays and Sundays – even the ever loyal “cut out and keep” Tory boy pastiche, Robert Jenrick, was playing hard to get – and Boris Johnson sure as hell couldn’t be bothered to do it himself.

It can’t be long before No 10 pursues its dream of reducing the number still further, if Thursday’s showing is anything to go by. One – two at a push – a week would be just about ideal. A win-win situation that would cut the workload and save the daily embarrassment of a minister having to explain that the government really didn’t have much of a clue what it was doing and was just making up policy on the hoof.

This is no reflection on Grant Shapps, the delegated fall guy for Thursday’s press briefing. Shapps may not be the brightest kid on the block, but he’s always been one of the more enthusiastic and by cabinet standards has so far had a reasonable coronavirus war. He’s by and large managed to curb his natural tendency to smile when reading out the death statistics and he’s put in more than his fair share of shifts in trying to make news out of something that is either a non-event or a government PR disaster.

But even the transport secretary is now running on fumes. The sheer pointlessness of his existence is now getting to him. And understandably so. Though he tries to maintain the jaunty, upbeat exterior of a man who just can’t wait to upgrade the A66, his shoulders are now permanently slumped and he looks dead behind the eyes. Too much more of this and he’s going to crack and do a runner. Luckily he’s got plenty of aliases lined up for his new life. Bye, bye Grant. Hello Michael Green.

Having rattled through a few slides – astonishingly the one that showed that on the previous day the UK death total had been higher than the rest of the EU27 combined had gone missing – Shapps moved on to his “breaking news” announcement. It had just come to his attention that there was a nasty disease called coronavirus going round, so from 15 June – might as well let a few more people die rather than doing it immediately – everyone on public transport was going to have to wear face coverings.

Well, hello. Not only had many people, including London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, been calling for such measures for weeks now, most other countries had made it law a month ago. But Grant was adamant. The UK had a reputation to maintain as the country that took measures long after they had become blindingly obvious to everyone else. It was this kind of inaction that made the UK a “world beater” in international stupidity.

Still, Shapps could see some light at the end of the tunnel. One way out of these daily press briefings would be simply to broadcast those of other European countries that had taken place weeks ago. Just imagine the possibilities. Rather than wasting his time today, we could have replayed the press conference of a month ago in which the Spanish transport secretary announced the compulsory wearing of face masks on public transport only dubbed into English with Grant’s voice. Put like this, no minister would ever need to appear in public again.

There was a caveat, though. Face coverings alone wouldn’t be enough to stop the coronavirus, so it was still necessary for people not to make unnecessary journeys, and to work from home wherever possible. This from a man who had literally queued for 90 minutes on Tuesday afternoon to take part in a vote to deny fellow MPs from having a vote or taking part in parliamentary proceedings because they had health issues, caring responsibilities, large distance to travel or were self-isolating. And all this just to indulge Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ongoing public school fantasies of entitled omnipotence.

Even when challenged on this by journalists, Shapps didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong in the government implementing a three-line whip to break its own public health guidelines and put MPs and parliamentary staff at risk. “Er,” said Shapps. “We were getting behind with secondary legislation.” Then learn to use a Zoom meeting like almost everyone in the country. There’s nothing to stop a committee of MPs from scrutinising legislation online. But what Jakey wants, Jakey must have. After all, whose fault is it if you don’t have a second London home and a fleet of nannies?

Grant had no answer to any of the other questions. He didn’t know what advice the government may have for BAME people. He didn’t know why we had still been sending hospital patients into care homes without being tested in the middle of April.

There was just time for the transport secretary to make it clear that no one was going anywhere anytime soon. Either home or abroad. For a start, people were forbidden from staying overnight in another home so UK holidays were out the question. And there was no point in people getting worked up about Priti Patel having introduced a quarantine on air travel at least six weeks too late at a time when it would be largely ineffective, because government advice was that no one should go anywhere by air anyway. So all summer holidays were cancelled and no harm had been done. That was the brilliance of having someone really stupid as home secretary.

Shapps quickly curtailed any other questions. The Italian transport secretary was due on TV in a few minutes and it would be handy for him to know what he would be announcing in a month or so’s time.

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