On live television, Andy Burnham had just finished making an impassioned plea for the tiny amount of money that will be needed to spare the poorest and most vulnerable people of Manchester from ruination in the wake of new coronavirus restrictions being forced upon them.
Reporters had asked a few questions, and then, still on live television, a colleague placed a smartphone in front of him, containing breaking news. Not only is help not coming but, through pure vindictiveness, the previous — already too low — offer had been withdrawn.
Mr Burnham puffed out his cheeks in horror and, after a brief pause to take in what was happening, alighted on the following words: “This is no way to run a country, is it.”
Coronavirus has not left history short on vignettes to encapsulate this government’s quite stunning ineptitude. But this wasn’t ineptitude, it was sheer malignance.
“There would be a better chance of defeating the virus if we worked together,” Mr Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, had just been saying.
“We cannot move through this pandemic by grinding communities down. We need to carry the public with us, not crush their spirit.”
They were stirring words. It is also, of course, a significant testament to Mr Johnson that he has turned the likes of Andy Burnham, a man who was arguably the least impressive candidate in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, which you may recall was won by an obscure backbencher called Jeremy Corbyn, into a great leader.
Crises make some — not all but some — aspects of the job of politicians much, much easier. It isn’t all that hard to find the right words for sober times, though it is infinitely beyond the prime minister, as is every other aspect bar none.
Mr Burnham had explained in stern and precise detail how he was asking only for £65m, which equates to roughly £23 per person in the Greater Manchester region. This, he said, was the bare minimum. Without it, people would be made homeless. He had been offered £60m, and the negotiations appeared to have broken down over the almost laughably small sum of £5m.
And then, on live TV, he would learn that Manchester’s MPs were on a video conference call with Matt Hancock, the offer had been unilaterally reduced to £22m, and Tier 3 restrictions were being unilaterally imposed too.
We have known for some time that perpetual war is not merely the preferred but the only methodology the government can manage. It is nevertheless something of a step change when the latest new front to be opened in that war is on their own people.
Within minutes, Boris Johnson would appear on television to announce Manchester’s new measures. He was asked more than five times, by reporters, whether £22m was Manchester’s final offer, whether the negotiations he had walked away from might actually be ongoing. He was asked it five times, not merely because he refused to answer it, but because through his palpably absurd waffle, he made it clear he didn’t actually have a clue what the answer was.
"Our door is open to continue that conversation," he said. The door is open, but he’d just walked out of it. Would he be going back in? Would Andy Burnham have to run after him? He didn’t know. No one knew. No one knows anything at all, apart from the nine short words that had gone a few moments before.
This is no way to run a country, is it.