Boris Johnson, the UK’s gaffe-prone Prime Minister, is frantically attempting to retract remarks made in a private meeting with Conservative lawmakers on Tuesday night.
Johnson made an unguarded remark during the weekly “1922 Committee” meeting of Conservative backbenchers, claiming that the UK’s successful vaccine rollout was “because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends,” according to several sources who were on the call.
Knowing how inflammatory his remarks might be if they were made public, Johnson quickly retracted them, saying, “actually I regret saying it … forget I said that.” according to the sources.
Johnson’s spokespeople have declined to provide CNN with a comment on the matter.
A spokesperson for the opposition Labour party told CNN: “The idea that acts of selfishness … have got us through this crisis seems very odd: It’s hard to work out where the Prime Minister is coming from there.”
The Prime Minister’s comments come as the European Commission prepares to lay out its proposals for tighter export controls on Covid-19 vaccines manufactured within the bloc.
Supply and delivery issues also hampered Brussels’ vaccine programme. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, is expected to threaten companies in the EU that the Commission claims are not upholding contracts signed with Brussels when the Commission negotiated vaccine deals on behalf of the 27 member states.
New powers authorizing the EU to withhold exports to countries that do not reciprocally export vaccines to the EU are also likely to be included in the plans.
On Thursday, leaders from the EU’s 27 member states will meet electronically to discuss the Commission’s proposals.
Germany’s and Ireland’s leaders have already expressed reservations about export restrictions that would threaten specific countries.
The United Kingdom, which chose not to participate in the EU’s vaccination policy, has been implementing its immunisation campaign much quicker than the rest of the continent. Many have framed this as a result of Brexit and an indication of what can be achieved now that the nation is free of the EU’s bureaucratic yoke domestically.
Since the European Medicines Agency has been chastised for taking too long to approve vaccines, other EU countries have turned to Russia and China to fill supply gaps through unilateral procurement agreements.
The EU has been embarrassed by the UK’s relative performance. Any concerns that the UK isn’t playing fairly or calls for retroactive steps are easy to dismiss as petulance on the part of Brussels, an effort to transfer responsibility for its own shortcomings.
Johnson’s remarks on greed, on the other hand, may be useful to a Commission seeking to reconcile member states and depict the United Kingdom as the bad guy.
The Prime Minister was “clearly kidding” to a room of colleagues, as he’d spent the whole meeting “praising AstraZeneca for not seeking benefit,” according to those in attendance, and he was “speaking in a typical Boris rambly manner” when he fell into explaining how the left-wing opposition Labour party opposes any private investment in the National Health Service.
“He was talking off the cuff, I think, then suddenly remembered he was Prime Minister,” one lawmaker present at the meeting told CNN.
However, there is no denying that his comments were made at an inopportune moment. In Johnson’s response to the pandemic, the vaccine rollout has been a rare success. Coronavirus continues to claim the lives of the most people in Europe.
Anything that jeopardizes the vaccination program and delays the Prime Minister’s plans to lift the lockdown on Britons could be disastrous for the Prime Minister and his government at a time when they can ill afford a major setback, particularly one delivered by the European Union.