“Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” Did Boris Johnson say it?

Sienna Rodgers
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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“Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” Did Boris Johnson really say he would rather see this outcome than a third lockdown, as the Daily Mail reports today? “We’re getting into the comedy chapter now of these gossip stories,” said Ben Wallace, the minister tasked with defending the Prime Minister on the airwaves this morning. “I have known him personally for many years and the idea he’s going to go round saying things like that is just wrong,” he added. Ah, but he would call the ventilator challenge ‘Operation Last Gasp’? And he is the guy who once said Libya could turn the city Sirte into its next Dubai, “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”? And, hold on, this is the Prime Minister whose repeated lockdown delays did lead to thousands of extra deaths?

Since Johnson apparently called up newspaper editors himself last week to brief that Dominic Cummings leaked the James Dyson messages, a number of serious allegations have been levelled at the Prime Minister. Cummings used a blogpost to accuse his old boss of considering a “totally unethical” intervention in a leak inquiry and a plan to have the 10 Downing Street flat refurbishment paid by donors that was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal”. He concluded that the PM and his office have fallen “far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”. I think it is safe to say the leak accusations have backfired, and it seems deeply personal dynamics have obscured No 10’s political judgment only days before elections take place across the country.

The Greensill scandal has taken precedence in recent weeks, but some reckon the Downing Street flat refurb story is more explosive. The claim is that Johnson wanted to have donors secretly pay for the renovation – a claim that has now been repeated by Cummings. Minister will only say that Johnson has now met the costs, refusing to clarify whether they were first paid for by donors. This is something that not only angers Labour, but also Conservatives who would rather see donations go towards campaigning. Labour is calling for a full investigation into the refurb, plus the opposition wants the latest list of ministers’ interests to be published and scrutiny of the ‘VIP’ Covid contracts list.

Dominic Cummings has become a witness in the trial of Boris Johnson being prosecuted by Keir Starmer. Many are wondering whether this witness will be deemed unreliable by a British public that knows him best as the adviser who broke lockdown in the most flagrant way. Some in Labour grimly point out that the Prime Minister has already gotten away with so much and the Tories maintain a big lead in the polls. But a phrase as both sinister and nonchalant as ‘let them eat cake’ has every chance of cutting through in a way facts often cannot: misquote or otherwise, the words splashed across the Mail today are memorable. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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