If Coronavirus deaths come in at the malign end of the scale, it’s possible that Boris Johnson won’t survive. If they come in at the benign end, he almost certainly will. His fate will depend on mortalities, rates and trends as well as action, provision and, as ever, luck. He must walk the razor-edge wire between the potential collapse of the NHS, on one side, and that of the entire economy, on the other.
“I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” Churchill wrote of becoming Prime Minister. He led Britain through a national emergency of one kind; Johnson is leading it through a very different one. The Prime Minister himself has invited parallels with Churchill by the act of writing a book about him. How’s he doing?
The first point to make is that Churchill had long warned of the nazi menace, and was appointed as Prime Minister expressly to deal with it. Johnson came to office for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the virus: to get Brexit done.
Churchill, as he later put it, “had the luck to be called upon to give the roar”. Johnson is more than capable of turning a phrase himself, though his natural vein is not so much walking with destiny as winking at destiny. Unable to crack jokes and make puns during this crisis, at least most of the time, he has occasionally looked at sea.
This is greatly to his credit. What would it be like to have a Prime Minister who actually relished announcing a lockdown? “Bring in the police?” he asked, clearly gobsmacked, at a press conference in response to a question – only to do so reluctantly a few days later.
Some of very same people who, only a few weeks ago, were denouncing Johnson as a Bannonite monster, a would-be Orban-style aggrandiser of power, were last week clamouring for the shutdown – and, by extension, the sweeping emergency powers that have come with it. Coronavirus is a reminder that the Prime Minister is a liberal.
So much for rhetoric; what about decisions? ConHome has spoken to some of those working alongside him and can report the following: “he’s knackered” (this was before he caught the virus); “he’s plainly not enjoying it at all”; “his majority is like capital in the bank, and he’s not frightened”.
“Some politicians are just a bit too highly-strung to do well at the top,” one insider said. “If Keith Joseph had been in charge, he’d have lost lots of sleep. Boris isn’t losing any: when push comes to shove, he’s a tough bastard.” A Prime Minister must be able to make decisions. Johnson clearly has no trouble doing so.
And for all his unhappiness at finding himself enmeshed in Coronavirus, he has risen to the occasion when it has really mattered – in his broadcast to the nation, the most watched event since the London Olympics closing ceremony.
After the shutdown ends, as it gradually will; and after there is or isn’t a second wave; and after, in all probability, a vaccine arrives, there will doubtless be an enquiry into government’s preparations for pandemics in general, and this one’s response to the virus in particular.
Johnson won’t really have to answer for the former – after all, he has been Prime Minister for less than a year – though he will have to account for his Government’s response on tests, ventilators and equipment (and of course the lockdown). The media is taking a critical view, but voters seem to be more indulgent, at least at the moment. The Conservatives are polling above 50 per cent. Some surveys are pushing Johnson up to near Churchillian ratings.
Perhaps the simplest way of mulling the Prime Minister’s performance is the best. Those who have always liked him still like him. Those who have hated him since the EU referendum, and were infuriated further by December’s election result, hate him still. Most people are fair-minded, recognise the infernal pressures that Ministers are under, and are giving him the benefit of the doubt – especially now that he has gone down ill himself. That’s as it should be.