His biographers and friends tell us that Boris Johnson inhabits a pagan world of gods, heroes, portents and prophecies. His pre-Christian sensibility enables him to transcend the burdens of conscience that constrain mere mortals, freeing him to create his own destiny, in the manner of all great men. His sycophantic enablers in the right-wing press, many of whom are now turning against him, have long claimed that Johnson would be a great national leader not only because he was good at winning elections but because he was good at delegation. He would inspire with his rhetoric and boosterism and others would concentrate on the hard graft of policy and governance.
From a young age Boris Johnson longed for greatness, longed to be “world king” no less, as we are repeatedly and tiresomely told. If your wish is to be world king, being prime minister of the United Kingdom in an age of decline ought to be a breeze. But you should be careful what you wish for, as my mother used to say.
As a classicist, Johnson knows that the gods are playful, fickle and seldom benign. This year, they seem to be having fun at his expense, mocking his vanities and expressions of confidence. He must know too that progress is not linear and that pandemics and plagues are fundamental to human experience in a world that is ultimately mysterious. All great leaders need luck and Johnson is unlucky that his long-desired premiership has coincided with the gravest pandemic for a century. It’s true that all Western leaders have struggled in their response to the crisis, even the sainted Angela Merkel, but Johnson’s struggles have been especially revealing of his moral character and style of leadership. For a politician who is meant to be a gifted writer and orator, Johnson, as I wrote in the spring, has failed to find a mode of address that is commensurate with the gravity of the situation. He cannot find a voice – a style, an idiom – in which to speak to and for the nation, as Churchill did during the Second World War, and, in a much less exalted manner, Nicola Sturgeon has done in Scotland throughout the crisis. The First Minister craftily positions Scotland against England, contrasting her cautious, technocratic style with Johnson’s incompetence and inconsistencies. The kingdom is fragmenting and the four nations are pulling against each other rather than together.
Like Donald Trump, Johnson from the beginning seemed reluctant to be honest about the threat posed by the virus, even though he later nearly died from it. My own personal Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance – Dr Phil Whitaker and Professor Michael Barrett – have warned New Statesman readers, ever since the Chinese quarantined the city of Wuhan in January, that this coronavirus was no transient menace. Lockdowns would be required, they said, and we were in it for the long haul, and so it has proved.
Why does Johnson make promises he must know can never be fulfilled? He boasted in the spring that we would “send coronavirus packing” within 12 weeks. In July, he declared that we would be back to normal “from November at the earliest – possibly in time for Christmas”, as if merely wishing things were so would make them so. When Keir Starmer demanded a two-week circuit break lockdown covering the recent half-term period, Johnson ridiculed the Labour leader. And then there are his unexplained absences, when he retreats from the public gaze, which leads even his cheerleaders to ask “Where’s Boris?” Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote TS Eliot. For Johnson, the pandemic has been a reality check – and he cannot bear the responsibility.
The Brexiteers pledged that they would take back control. But Johnson’s government is not in control; instead, it is continually harried and destabilised by events because it has no grand strategy or compelling mission, beyond a nebulous wish to “level up” and “get Brexit done”, whatever that means. Last weekend was a model of incompetent crisis management. News of a second lockdown in England was leaked to the press and as a consequence Johnson was forced in haste to organise a press conference, scheduled for 4pm on Saturday 31 October.
In the event, it began several hours late and then, after some cursory introductory remarks, Johnson promptly made way for Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England. Here was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to find language appropriate for a moment of national mourning. More than 45,000 people have died in the UK from Covid-19 and on the day of Johnson’s press conference we reached a harrowing milestone, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK surpassed one million.
Johnson is not unlettered. He is meant to be a writer (though much of his writing is glib). He has studied the great classical leaders. We saw a glimpse of how he might have responded to the experience of the pandemic when he first came out of hospital and gave a remarkable short speech about his gratitude to the NHS for saving his life. And yet, for whatever reason – a failure of empathy, an inability to speak the truth, a fear of the wrath of the libertarian right and the lockdown-sceptics in the Tory press, an essential unseriousness – he cannot, as the American writer David Brooks said of Trump in a different context, step outside of his political role and reveal “himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers”. Instead, he blusters, equivocates and flounders. What he doesn’t do is lead. And when it becomes too much for him, as it frequently does, he merely shuffles off the stage.
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos