In the summer of 2011, riots erupted all over London and television screens and newspapers were filled with pictures of blazing buildings and looted shops. People swiftly noted that among those not present in the capital was the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who was with his family in a camper van in the Canadian Rockies on a holiday from which he showed great reluctance to return.
As London burned, the excuses for Johnson’s absence by City Hall became more and more embarrassing: he was said to be against “rewarding” the rioters by flying back to London precipitously; he claimed that he must stay in Canada because his then wife was unable to drive the Winnebago camper van.
When he did come back to London – sometime after the prime minister, David Cameron, and the home secretary, Theresa May, had rushed back from their own holidays – he went straight to Clapham in south London, which had suffered particularly badly in the riots. He was greeted at first by jeering residents, but he seized a broom and held it aloft as a symbol of his determination to lead the clean-up of the debris left by the riots. Hand clapping replaced the booing, though some distraught shopkeepers later said that there was no evidence that Johnson had actually used his broom. Politically, this did not matter: the gesture was enough and Johnson was re-elected mayor the following year, his political career, and wider ambition to be prime minister, undamaged.
Given his track record, nobody should have been too surprised that the prime minister was on the millionaires’ island of Mustique in the Caribbean when China first told the WHO on 31 December that an unusual type of pneumonia had been identified in Wuhan. The pandemic was well underway in February when he took a 12-day “working holiday” and missed five emergency Cobra meetings about coronavirus before succumbing to the virus himself in March. Most politicians would have been damaged by these voluntary and involuntary disappearances in such a mega crisis, but, instead, he may return to Downing Street in the next few days, his popularity enhanced by accidentally achieving the martyr status of “wounded in action” in the war against coronavirus.
More is at work here than sympathy for a sick man: Johnson plugs into the traditional English sympathy for the lovable rogue with an engaging personality who has faults but very human ones to which everybody can relate; quintessentially English, he is never downhearted and is difficult to hate. This fondness for jocular Falstaffian figures has a long history and it is, indeed, not for nothing that Shakespeare’s Falstaff was his most popular creation.
Yet it is important to keep in mind, as Johnson enjoys physical and political rejuvenation, that his jolly but self-confident amateurism is all too genuine and, unlike 2011, his mistakes cause real misery and loss of life. Note, for instance, that the death rate for Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland is two-thirds of that in Northern Ireland and the explanation for this is that on 12 March, Britain – including Northern Ireland – abandoned contact tracing and restricted testing, which it is now desperately trying to resume, while the Irish government followed WHO guidelines and expanded testing and contact tracing. In other words, if 18,738 people have died from coronavirus in the UK, then as many as 6,000 may have died unnecessarily because of mistakes by Johnson and the government that he has created in his own image.
Once a bungler, always a bungler – and the bungles are not going to stop simply because the man most responsible for them has personal experience of coronavirus. Johnson’s failings might not matter so much if Britain was only trying to cope with the consequences of Brexit. He might even have been the right man for the job because, going by his agile retreat over the Withdrawal Agreement last October, he is skilful in announcing famous but non-existent victories and masking concessions with sub-Churchillian bombast and defiance.
The ineptitude of the Brexiteers is more dangerous than Brexit itself: Johnson and his lieutenants gained power by exaggerating or inventing danger, such as the supposed threat to British independence from the EU. And it is this very skill in inflating threats and boosting opportunities conveniently just over the horizon, that makes a Brexiteer government peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with an all too real and terrible crisis. Suddenly the slogans are no longer enough – upbeat words stubbornly refuse to turn into deeds and serve only to hide and drift an uncertain strategy.
The government’s defence gambit is to say that all along it has been only “following the science”, though it is obvious from the beginning that scientists radically disagree about what should be done. It was the chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance who backed “mitigation”, or herd immunity, for a critical period – contrary to the best practice in South Korea, China, Taiwan and Singapore. Paradoxically, the very same Brexiteers who had once repeatedly denounced experts who criticised their favourite project now demand that the words of their medical experts who advise them should be treated as divinely inspired utterances that must be obeyed.
Political leaders do not have to judge the validity of scientific arguments themselves, but they do need to appoint people who can correctly do so. History is full of examples of distinguished scientists who got things very wrong: Professor Lindemann, Winston Churchill’s friend and scientific adviser, argued in the 1930s for the development of aerial mines hanging from parachutes as a way of defending Britain from future German air attack, while others suggested that radar might be the better option.
A pandemic is by its nature an international event since the coronavirus knows no national frontiers. It is therefore unlucky that Britain should be ruled by people who are fanatical believers in the nation state and sceptical about cooperation with the rest of Europe. Regardless of whether it was ministers or civil servants who were to blame for failing to participate in joint procurement with the EU of essential medical equipment, this was clearly something to which the government had given little priority.
Austerity has hollowed out the British state at home and Brexit has weakened it abroad. Worse, those in charge of promoting those projects are in power with no chance of replacing them, however poorly they perform. Strong local government institutions are essential to carrying out the new mantra of tracking, tracing and testing, but these have been cut back to the point that it is doubtful if they can carry out such a vast undertaking.
Presiding over this catastrophe will be Boris Johnson, exuding optimism and praising the “fantastic” and “amazing” work of almost everybody, regardless of achievement. He will speak of the spirit of 1940, but so far his performance is closer to that of those bonhomous but disastrous British generals in the First World War. About one such general, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a bitter poem with striking current relevance: “‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack / As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack / But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”