LONDON — Boris Johnson accused the EU of negotiating in bad faith, admitted to problems with the U.K. coronavirus testing program and did nothing to reassure his own civil servants in his second appearance before a House of Commons super-committee.
The prime minister was grilled for more than 90 minutes by the liaison committee — a group made up of the chairs of all the parliamentary select committees.
Johnson fared better than during his first appearance earlier this year, when the exploits of his chief adviser Dominic Cummings prompted terse exchanges. But he was still questionable on the detail, at one point ending up stumped about a report he had previously promised to look at.
There were a couple of human moments in the hearing, when Johnson complained to Labour MP Meg Hillier that he did not like her “hostile tone,” when Conservative Tom Tugendhat corrected him on his Japanese, and when he rolled his eyes at a droning lecture from Brexiteer Bill Cash.
The topics covered Brexit, the coronavirus and plans for a foreign policy and defense shakeup. There was a good dose of classic Johnsonian bluster, but a string of revealing exchanges alongside.
Here are five things five to know:
EU bad faith?
Johnson seemed unsure of whether the EU was negotiating in good faith or not, following the latest Brexit bust-up.
The prime minister has previously said the EU is threatening to “blockade” Northern Ireland by stopping exports from Great Britain, and has moved to override the Withdrawal Agreement as an apparent response.
Asked by Brexit select committee chair Hilary Benn whether the EU was negotiating in good faith, Johnson said: “I don’t believe they are.”
The problem was his Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the opposite just hours earlier. “It’s always possible I’m mistaken,” Johnson added.
The prime minister was also unable to confirm whether his legal officer for Scotland Richard Keen was still in post, after Keen tendered his resignation and ended up locked in talks with Downing Street about whether he should remain in the job. Keen did later leave the government.
No blockade law
Despite the U.K.’s claim that the EU is threatening to stop the transport of food products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland becoming the central Downing Street argument for overriding the Withdrawal Agreement, the Internal Market Bill does nothing to address the issue.
And Johnson confirmed that the government, as things stand, has no plans to create a law that will. He said the EU was taking such an “extreme” approach that “we don’t yet intend to bring forward legislation to deal with that point, and we will wait and see what they do.”
In a rare candid moment, Johnson admitted the coronavirus testing regime in the U.K. was still lacking.
The government has been scrambling to respond to reports that people across the nation have been unable to book tests or forced to wait days for results. “We don’t have enough testing capacity now,” Johnson said, “because in an ideal world I would want to test everybody that wants a test immediately.” Meanwhile, he heaped praise on U.K. efforts to ramp up testing.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Johnson hinted that the government could bring forward plans for sector-specific job support.
Campaigners and opposition MPs have been urging ministers to extend the so-called furlough scheme, which has seen the government pay a portion of people’s wages, past the end of this month when it is due to finish. But asked whether there could be further job support on a sector-specific basis, Johnson said the government would show “great creativity and flexibility” in looking after all parts of the economy.
While he was attending the committee, it was reported that the U.K. had hit its highest daily total of new cases since May, at 3,991. Johnson warned that growing cases will also lead to higher mortality rates, but he also said a second national lockdown would be “disastrous” for the economy.
Watch out, Whitehall
Cummings, the top Downing Street adviser, is said to have told colleagues a “hard rain” is going to fall on the civil service, as No.10 seeks to reform the U.K. civil service.
Officials who are worried about their jobs will not have been reassured when Johnson was asked if ministers can sack civil servants. “A minister is entitled to make clear he or she believes the operation of the department would be different [under different leadership],” he said.
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