I’m not saying Lady Hallett’s job as judge of the Covid Inquiry has gone to her head, but she entered the hearing room in a sedan chair – to be greeted by the wonderfully pretentious and plummy Hugo Keith KC.
“Whom are we interrogating today?” asked the Baroness.
“The Prime Minister, your sagaciousness. This is him, here.”
“Well, tell him to show some manners and stand up!”
“Your majesty, he is standing up.” And thus we get the gag about Rishi’s height out of the way early.
Small man, towering intellect. Keith’s questioning immediately crashed against the rocks of the PM’s spreadsheet precision and corporate blandness – such that when he delivered the now standard “I’m sorry about all the deaths” speech, I expected him to reassure the audience that “your business is very important to us” and that if they wish to speak to a human being, they should stay on the line.
“I have lost many of my lockdown-era WhatsApps”, he confessed, having replaced his phone several times since (you and me both, Prime Minister: I lost my last one on a bus to Guildford). And he had no recollection of the supposed chaos in No 10. Indeed, Sunak came off as a man who lives with headphones on, oblivious to the civil wars and birthday parties raging around him - yet curiously certain about what he did not say if it makes him sound bad.
Turning the tables
Yet before Boris fans write him off as cynical and self-serving, Sunak proved admirably loyal to his former boss – calling his warnings about the costs of lockdown “a) unsurprising and b) good”, given the economic impact.
Keith tried to insinuate that the Treasury contributed to Boris’s policy fog, pulling out records of “bilats” and “huddles” between the two men as if evidence they were conducting a torrid affair. But Sunak was too on top of the detail he could remember to be bamboozled. “Can we bring up par 257 of my witness statement?” he asked in mitigation, turning the tables on the inquiry in a way I’ve never seen tried before.
Finally, we got to the meat: why didn’t the Treasury consult with the health bods on Eat Out to Help Out? “We didn’t have to”, insisted Sunak, “because hospitality had already been opened up before we did it.”
“But why not examine the health risks?” pressed Keith.
“Because I didn’t believe there were any”, replied the PM with obvious frustration, for he is at his most human when the data he is being asked to process makes the least sense. Then he went too far, quoting Matt Hancock’s view that: “There has been undue focus on this one item.”
“Excuuuuse me?” gasped Keith, almost fainting under the audacity of the statement. “It’s a matter for m’lady… as to whether or not [matters] are of importance to this inquiry.”
M’ladyship smiled graciously from her flat pack throne. In a better age, she could have reminded the PM who is in charge by crying “off with his head!” She had to settle instead with wasting his time – and our money.