On the face of it, the idea seemed sensible. To minimise the risk to our top ministers and public health officials, Downing Street decided at the weekend that the daily coronavirus news conference should be held “remotely”. Instead of being in No10, journalists would sit at home, and ask questions via a video link.
The potential for technical difficulties, however, was considerable. Slow internet connections, say, or problems with sound, or screens freezing. Sooner or later, something was bound to go wrong. And today, as Rishi Sunak took his turn to host the daily news conference, it did.
“Could I turn next,” said the Chancellor, “to Robert Peston of ITV?”
The familiar face of Mr Peston appeared on screen. Yet – in what was surely a career first – he didn’t speak. There followed several seconds of agonising silence. Mr Peston didn’t appear to have realised that he was now live on national television.
Then, abruptly, he did.
“Oh s---,” he said.
It was a quarter past five on a Thursday evening. Dinner time. A nation froze, mid-bite.
“Good afternoon, Robert,” replied the Chancellor pleasantly, pretending he hadn’t heard.
Then again, it takes more than a bit of inadvertent pre-watershed swearing to faze Mr Sunak. For a minister so young and inexperienced, he really is remarkably smooth. It’s a particular kind of smoothness, too. Not so much the smoothness of a politician: unctuous, smarmy, smug. It’s more earnest than that, more wholesome. It’s the smoothness of the kind of doctor you see answering viewers’ medical worries on daytime television.
You know the kind I mean. The gently concerned frown. The soothing tone of voice, soft as a pillow. The way they look the camera right in the eye, and hold its gaze, while giving it the occasional nod of reassurance. That’s Mr – or should I say Dr – Sunak all over. He’s talking about his proposals to mitigate an economic crisis – but he could just as easily be talking about a wonderful new treatment for hot flushes.
Anyway, his televised performances during this crisis seem to be going down very well. I especially like the tenderly sincere manner in which he says “Thank you” each time a journalist asks him a question, as if the question were a touching personal gift.
This evening his main theme was support for the self-employed. Each self-employed worker, he announced, would be able to claim a grant worth 80 per cent of their average profits – up to a maximum of £2,500 a month. It sounded promising. There seemed to be only two small problems.
First: the money, he admitted, might not actually be available until the beginning of June. Which is more than two months away. And second: once this crisis is finally over, he’ll be asking all of us to “chip in” so that together we can “right the ship”.
Which sounds like a characteristically gentle, polite and pleasant way of saying he’s going to whack our taxes up.