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2 April 2020

Boris Johnson’s popularity is surging – and all it took was the apocalypse

The government isn’t having a good crisis, by any measure, so why don’t the public seem to care?

By Jonn Elledge

You know, in so far as I ever imagined the apocalypse at all, I imagined it would be a lot more interesting than this. Stories about the end of the world tend to go big on things like countdowns to nuclear fire, or huge, Bacchanalian parties breaking out like looting as everyone simultaneously realises that, now there’s not actually a tomorrow to speak off, they really might as well get on the Class As and declare their undying love for their best friend. (It’s much easier, after all, for love not to die when you’re planning to.) No apocalyptic fiction I can think of includes lengthy passages of people sat around in their pyjamas oscillating between watching Netflix and whining that the milk’s gone off and they’re not allowed out to buy some more.

But the world has, in most senses, stopped. Everything is closed even though no one’s having fun, like an Easter Sunday that goes on for weeks, and there are queues for shops and empty shelves of exactly the sort right-wing commentators liked to crow were an inevitability if this country was foolish enough to elect Jeremy Corbyn, and boy don’t they feel silly now. Earlier a friend told me she was counting down the days until the arrival of her fruit and veg box, as it now marks the highlight of her week. The other day I found myself genuinely excited to find a shop selling pasta (and, no, I won’t tell you where). So much have my horizons narrowed that my most interesting dream this week was about Scottish housing policy. Worse, it turned out not to be true, so I couldn’t even get a column out of it.

Another way in which the entire world feels like the headlines you spot in the background of movies about the end times: after ten years in office, the Conservative Party is attracting almost twice the support of its nearest opposition. The latest poll by Opinium has the Tories on 54 per cent, compared to 28 for Jeremy Corbyn/probably Keir Starmer’s Labour, and just for OBJECT NOT FOUND’s Liberal Democrats. That puts the Conservative lead at 26 points, compared to just 15 in the last poll taken before literally everything broke. Which, combined with the fact that polls are consistently finding the public are satisfied with the government’s handling of the crisis, suggests that impaired brain function might be a hitherto unsuspected symptom of Covid-19.

Because it’s not actually going very well, is it? Granted, the science is uncertain, negative impacts on both public health and economic well-being are probably inevitable, and I don’t envy anyone having to make the difficult, life or death decisions necessary to tackle this crisis. But nonetheless, stories about official bungling have been rather more numerous than those of a well-oiled government machine.

So: the strategy was herd immunity, until one day it suddenly wasn’t, and not only that but they expected us to believe it never had been. Everything was to remain open, until the precise moment that everything was to close. The Budget was final, until it wasn’t, and the update was final until that one wasn’t, either. Rishi Sunak kept rolling out new packages of financial support to prevent people he forgot the last time from running out of money, which was frustrating, but then he suddenly stopped, leaving a couple of million people with no obvious means of support and renters quite possibly stuffed, and that was obviously worse.

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Meanwhile, in a twist that would feel a bit on the nose if Armando Iannucci was directing this show, the Prime Minister himself tested positive for the virus. Ditto the Health Secretary and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, whom, inevitably, the Mail has been trying to finger for passing the plague onto decent British sorts like Boris. At least these guys could get tested. Most people showing symptoms can’t, and aren’t likely to, either: the UK is testing at roughly a third of the rate of Germany, despite having an almost identical crisis in a slightly smaller population, and for all the airy promises about ramping this up, daily test rates have remained stubbornly constant. 

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Throughout all this, large chunks of government strategy have continued to leak out via late-night tweets from friendly journalists, rather than through the official briefing, which is great because obviously what you want in a pandemic situation is minimum clarity and maximum deniability. That briefing, incidentally, is now being held by cabinet ministers including Dominic Raab, a man with the unsettling air of having been practising for this exact possibility since sometime in the early 1990s. The other day, footage emerged of Dominic Cummings literally running away from Downing Street. If only he’d kept going.

And then, on Tuesday night (31 March), the final indignity: the World Health Organisation and the nations of Europe were joined in their criticism of British government strategy by none other than President Donald Trump. But despite all this, and the rising death toll, and the empty shelves, and the sheer, mind-numbing boredom of this crisis, YouGov has consistently found that more than half the public think the government is handling the crisis well, while the Financial Times’s polling analysis has suggested that Johnson is currently one of the most popular leaders in the democratic world, behind only India’s Narendra Modi and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Whether this will last as the pandemic rolls on, as the economy craters, and more and more of us are directly affected by the virus, remains to be seen. But even if it doesn’t, Boris Johnson will always have the satisfaction of knowing that, for one shining moment, he was the most popular British prime minister in decades.

And all it took was the complete collapse of human civilisation to do it.