Big Dog’s big calls. Have four words in politics ever felt more fatuous? They’d be laughable if they weren’t so offensive. From the moment the news leaked in mid-January of Downing Street’s manoeuvres – reportedly dubbed “Operation Save Big Dog” by Boris Johnson himself – to save his skin from “partygate”, I could barely suppress my rage. Exactly a year earlier, in January 2021, those of us working in the NHS faced the grisly nadir of Covid’s second wave – perhaps the most calamitous loss of life in British peacetime history, with a staggering 85,000 lives claimed by the virus from autumn 2020 to springtime 2021.
As a palliative care doctor, I watched my hospital become a cathedral of dying. There was nothing witty, or jolly, or irreverent, or light-hearted about what our patients faced back then. In place of pound-shop codenames and a communications “grid” supplying contrite soundbites for supportive ministers, Covid patients’ plight was unimaginably bleak. This was death on an industrial scale. Behind closed doors, the dying were warehoused on ventilators, festooned with wires and tubes, tended by staff in shrouds of gowns and masks. Johnson’s decision to prioritise the cheap populism of “saving Christmas” above saving lives meant we would sometimes see three generations of the same family dying in succession in intensive care, each having caught Covid from the other during the holiday festivities he had sanctioned. It was one of the innumerable pandemic calls he got wildly, unforgivably wrong.
Even now, after yesterday’s confidence vote, Johnson’s strategy for self-preservation is to pretend that matters of life and death are merely a game, and that public wrath at Downing Street’s law-breaking is nothing more than a confected media obsession. Cabinet loyalists such as Dominic Raab spent all day parroting lines about meeting “the people’s priorities”, as though dwelling on partygate was navel-gazing nonsense. Then, last night, Johnson declared that his narrow no-confidence victory meant that “as a government we can move on and focus on the stuff that really matters to people”. He is, in short, still hoping he can bluff his way out of it.
But the people, whom the Prime Minister frequently invokes, have collectively endured the greatest sacrifice of any generation since the Second World War. We are weary, browbeaten, exhausted. After two years of being physically wrenched apart by Covid, many of us ache for closeness, connection, shared meaning and values. What Johnson, bizarrely, still fails to understand is that in flouting the lockdown rules he wrote, he shattered something profound that cannot be repaired – the illusion that we were in it together. It is painfully obvious we were not.
Even last night – in contrast with his public apologies after Sue Gray’s report was published – Johnson is said to have privately told Tory MPs he would “do it again” in reference to attending leaving parties. Right there, in essence, is the man who leads the country. Zero humility, zero self-awareness. Just a two-faced narcissist who plays the public for fools. How on Earth can you blithely move on from that?
Early on in the pandemic, I encountered Johnson’s polar opposite. One of my hospice inpatients, a man in his seventies with end-stage cancer, needed to be consulted on whether he would wish, should he catch Covid, to be transported from the hospice to hospital for treatment. Without missing a beat, John gave me his answer. It was pure, unadulterated selflessness. “No hospital for me. I know I don’t have long. I’d like to stay here if I can. But – now, this is important – if it’s better for the other patients for me to go to hospital, then you send me in. I wouldn’t want anyone else to catch the virus because of me, so you send me in if you’re worried about that.”
My breath caught in my throat. Here was a man, frail and frightened, who had already lost so much, whose life was at its very end, yet who chose to keep on giving to others. I was struck by how easy it is to forget, amid the frenetic business of living, that most people try to be good. Most people, when it really matters, are good.
For the past two years, I’ve been cheek by jowl with the “ordinary” people Johnson claims to represent. The vastness of their grief and pain has been matched by jaw-dropping depths of strength and dignity. There were patients like John every day of the pandemic. If I’ve learnt anything at all, it is what a human heart is capable of. Grace and fury. Ferocious love. For as long as Boris Johnson remains in office, the people’s raw anger will burn.