Behind the scenes

The excuses offered for Johnson’s ‘capitalism’ and ‘greed’ vaccine gaffe

Tories insist the prime minister’s comments were just ‘banter’

Boris Johnson has risked reigniting tensions with the EU by saying that “capitalism” and “greed” were behind the UK’s vaccine rollout success.

After spending recent days trying to calm European leaders who have threatened to ban Covid jab exports, the prime minister made the controversial comments during a private Zoom meeting with the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers last night - before swiftly trying to backtrack.

What did he say?

According to The Sun, sources say that Johnson told the MPs: “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends.”

The PM reportedly then added that “actually, I regret saying it”, and repeatedly asked his colleagues to “forget I said that”.

Downing Street has declined to comment on - or refute - the claims.

What excuses have been made?

Several explanations have been put forward for the PM’s choice of words. The Sun says Johnson was “hailing the efforts of ‘big pharma’ in manufacturing the life-saving jab in lightning-quick time” when he made the comments.

Sources say he pointed out that AstraZenca is producing the vaccine at cost price, and “also insist the PM was not discussing the ongoing row with Europe over jabs, but instead talking about the wider scientific endeavour”, the paper adds.

Insiders who have spoken to other media outlets have downplayed the controversy too. 

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg tweets that “one of those present” at the meeting insists Johnson was just indulging in “banter” directed at Chief Whip Mark Spencer, who was “gobbling a cheese + pickle sandwich while he was talking about the vaccine”.

This version of events is backed up by a Sun source, who quoted Johnson as saying: “It was driven by big pharma - and I don’t just mean the chief whip.” The newspaper notes that Spencer was previously a farmer.

Meanwhile, Guido Fawkes reporter Tom Harwood insists that the whole tone of the Zoom chat has been “misinterpreted”. A Tory MP “tells me this is about effusive praise for Big Pharma”, tweets Harwood, who argues that the PM was “mocking those who say capitalism is about greed - because capitalism has saved thousands of lives”.

And the reaction?

Whatever was going through Johnson’s head, his leaked remarks have been seized on by political opponents. 

Labour pointed out that the row exploded on the anniversary of the UK’s first Covid lockdown, with opposition backbencher Barry Sheerman tweeting: “What an obnoxious comment on this day of all days.”

The Guardian focuses on the wider political picture, warning that despite the various excuses offered, the PM’s remarks “still risk escalating tensions with Brussels, given Johnson has previously been keen to avoid getting drawn into a war of words with European leaders”.

The incident “could further undermine efforts to find a constructive resolution to the prime minister’s diplomatic stalemate” with the EU, agrees The Times.

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