Boris Johnson struggles to find an authentic voice to speak to and for the nation

A national government may become inevitable.

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Early on the morning of Saturday 21 March, I visited Saffron Walden to buy some bread from a small artisan bakery and some flowers for Mother’s Day from the local market. The queue from the bakery stretched far up the hill, ending just opposite St Mary’s Church (though, this being Saffron Walden, perhaps the most elegant and refined town in Essex, people were politely keeping their distance from one another). The market on this cold but radiant spring morning was bustling with shoppers, especially around the flower stall in the ancient square. It could have been any typical Saturday morning, except that some of the cafés were closed, and those that were open were serving only takeaways. 

Scenes such as this in Saffron Walden were being replayed across the country last weekend – especially in parks and recreational spaces – as people ventured out, as if they could not quite believe what they were being told about the pace and severity of the unfolding health crisis. We were still in the period of the phoney war: the news from Italy and Spain was increasingly bleak but our prime minister had been telling us only a few days before that we should have this thing beaten in 12 weeks. We were witnessing the consequences of the government’s own confusion and mixed messaging in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Boris Johnson is, by instinct, a libertarian. As a journalist and commentator, his shtick was all about frivolity, mocking the nanny state, rejecting political correctness and making fun of excessive bureaucratic control. He is a fluent and witty writer but I have never read a column by him that has impressed me with its moral seriousness, or made me change my mind, or re-evaluate what I thought about something fundamental. His utterances as a journalist are invariably thin-spun and trivial. 

We are told he is good at delegating and he listens to those who advise him in Downing Street, as he did at City Hall when he was mayor of London. These are good traits. But leaders also need to be able to lead: to command authority, implement a coherent strategy, instil confidence, and reassure a nation for whom normal life has been suspended. 

We are also told that Johnson is an intellectual snob. That may be so, but equally he is not an intellectual – by which I mean, he is clever but essentially unserious. He has a 19th-century-style, high public school, classical education that has ill prepared him for the defining technological, scientific and economic challenges of the 21st century. Johnson now seems out of time and ponderous, a relic of an ancient regime, whereas his young and impressive chancellor, Rishi Sunak, seems like a new man: an intellectually nimble and open-minded technocrat and meritocrat, unencumbered by Johnson’s class baggage and past associations. 

What is striking too is just how inarticulate the Prime Minister is when he is not working from a prepared script: he writes so much better than he speaks. 

As the Times, which endorsed Johnson for the Conservative leadership, stated in a leader on 23 March: “The truth is that his performance so far has been chequered. Since the start he has appeared behind the curve. Considerable time that could have been spent preparing for the crisis appears to have been squandered.” It concluded: “The country needs to know that Mr Johnson has a coherent strategy. Otherwise the prime minister who dreamt of being Churchill may find himself cast as Neville Chamberlain.” 

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For much of this fast-moving, multifaceted crisis, Johnson, flanked at press conferences by his scientific and medical advisers, has struggled to speak for and to the nation. He could not find an appropriate tone or method of persuasion. His natural idiom is one of optimism. But his blustering, declamatory style, refined as a student at the Oxford Union, and habit of emphasising certain words in a sentence as he strives for flamboyant effect, was not working. He tried to be grave (“I must level with the British people”) and he tried to be optimistic (“We can turn the tide in 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing in this country”). In the end, on the evening of 23 March, Johnson delivered a scripted televised address to the nation. It was a powerful, necessary and effective moment: but had it come too late? 

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Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, experienced the First World War and the Great Depression. His response to the General Strike of 1926 was, of course, disastrous, as he sent in the army. (Clifford Sharp, the first editor of the New Statesman, denounced the then chancellor’s performance in an article headlined, “Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?”.) He raged against appeasement. Yet when his moment finally arrived, after the retreat from Dunkirk and the fall of France in 1940, Churchill knew what to do. He found a tone of voice, moral purpose and grandeur of expression commensurate to the gravity of the situation. He emphatically spoke to and for the nation; my mother remembers gathering as a child with her parents around the wireless to listen to his beautifully constructed addresses. 

By contrast, Johnson spent eight years at City Hall and has written over-many quickfire, jejune columns for the Daily Telegraph. He is a raconteur and a gag-maker. He is a natural humorist, as his father Stanley says. Is he anything more than this? 

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For the Tories, Boris Johnson has proved to be a serial winner; he is relentless in his ambition and will to succeed. And now here he is, our prime minister, no less (a position he coveted for much of his career), during the defining global crisis of the postwar period. If he continues to equivocate – and before the televised address many of his ministers believed he was – the need for a national government may become inevitable.

This piece is taken from the next issue of the New Statesman, out on Thursday (26 March)

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 25 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor

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