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25 March 2023

Does Boris Johnson think he’s a good person?

I broke lockdown rules too – lots of us did – but at least I can acknowledge my selfishness and flaws.

By Marie Le Conte

There’s a piece I nearly wrote a million times during the pandemic, then didn’t. I even had a headline for it; it stuck to the inside of my head like old gum. I was going to call it “The Limits of Empathy”. In the end I never did anything with it, but that title stayed with me for a long time. The limits of empathy. The limits of my empathy.

I didn’t write it because it was a time when personal opinions and opinions on public policy had become one and the same, because every bit of public policy ended up dominating our personal lives. I didn’t want to give ammunition to the anti-lockdown brigade. I wasn’t on their side politically.

What I wanted to say, personally, was that I didn’t always care about other people as much as I cared about myself. I’m young and healthy and I’d just about recovered from my first bout of Covid by the time the first lockdown started. I accepted lockdown at the beginning, because I knew that not everyone is young and healthy and I am not a sociopath, but that feeling waned over time.

I broke the rules in small ways at first, just to keep sane. I lived alone and I cried nearly every day, so sometimes I went on walks with people, or had drinks indoors with one other person who lived alone. After a while I ended up breaking the rules just because I wanted to.

[See also: Rishi Sunak could finally banish Boris Johnson]

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I went to visit a friend out of town; I had the whole train all to myself. It was a thrill. I had drinks with more than one person indoors. I went to exercise in an illegal gym that someone I knew had set up in their house. That one’s a bit of a long story.

Point is: I’d found the limits of my empathy. I obeyed most of the rules most of the time, but I didn’t care about vulnerable people enough to obey all of the rules all of the time. I never went to raves, I tested myself frequently, and I always wore masks when I had to: I wasn’t a bad person. I just wasn’t a good person either.

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To slightly misquote a scene from the Netflix show The Good Place, I’d definitely not earned a spot in Heaven or Hell, but I probably deserved to spend eternity in a place like Cincinnati. I watched other people either proudly saying they’d never broken the rules or tying themselves in knots to explain how they’d had a good reason to break them that one time, and I found it odd.

They just seemed so desperate to tell themselves – and the world, but mostly themselves – that they were good people. The pandemic just confirmed the suspicion I’d always had. I am, for the most part, morally ambivalent. I always try my best, but sometimes my best isn’t that great. I’ve made my peace with it.

That’s the important part, I think: the pandemic made me confront my flaws head on, and I am now more honest with myself. If it means I’ll get judged for it, then so be it. I can take responsibility for my actions.

[See also: Boris Johnson pleads idiocy]

What I can’t abide is the hypocrisy of those unwilling to stand by their failings, moral or otherwise. It came to me like an epiphany when I watched Boris Johnson get grilled by the Privileges Committee this week. When I say “watched”, I mean “glanced”; I couldn’t bear to get through the whole thing. The fury was physically painful.

Boris Johnson is a selfish man who believes that his selfish impulses should not have any consequences. He is someone who doesn’t believe the rules should apply to him and seems appalled when those who did obey the rules complain that he shouldn’t get away with it.

It is hard to know what lies beneath those beliefs. Does he yearn to be bad yet still be loved? Is he so certain of his status as Sun King that he doesn’t even see how his actions could possibly be harmful? Really, what I want to know is: does Boris Johnson think he’s a good person? Because I worry that he does, and it is maddening.

Much has been written about him by saints who obeyed every rule, even when it cost them dearly. This, I suppose, is the fury of the sinner. I see some of myself in Johnson and for a long time it worried me, but the pandemic made me realise that there is one crucial thing separating us.

We are both selfish and flawed, but there is a weightlessness to him that I lost when I stopped lying to myself. Like a dog hiding behind the couch after stealing food when no one was looking, I know that some of my actions are bad. Sometimes I act in ways that benefit me over others, but at least I am aware that it is what I’m doing, and I accept that I may be judged for it by people who are more virtuous than me.

Johnson gets under my skin because there should be, if not honour, then at least some recognition among thieves. My tolerance for people who aren’t always good is high but it vanishes if they refuse to see what they are. Maybe that’s the difference between us. I reckon I’m just about fit for Cincinnati. There’s some solace in thinking he won’t even make it there.

[See also: Boris Johnson the clown’s first encore]

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