Even as COVID-19 was revealing itself to be not a crisis, but a cataclysm, Boris Johnson was loath to do more than nudge Britain in the right direction.
By March 3, China had sealed off a city of 11 million people, the World Health Organisation had declared a global health emergency and the pathogen had claimed its first British victim.
But even then, even as he unveiled an official action plan, a Union Jack at each shoulder, the Prime Minister talked of “going about business as usual”.
“I’m shaking hands continuously,” he said, his mouth in a simper.
“I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.”
Many wondered: where’s the pleasure in that?
Mussed hair, tie askew, Boris Johnson’s career has been built on cheap tricks: bringing a tea tray to cameramen staking out his house, reciting the Iliad in schoolboy Greek, waving a smoked kipper at a stump speech.
Italy was scrambling to isolate 50,000 people, and Heathrow heaved with unchecked arrivals from Europe, but the man wanted only to cajole the nation.
He brushed his hand to the side of the lectern: “People obviously can make up their own minds.”
There’s been a fair volume of hand-wringing about Johnson’s dithering, but there’s little mystery to it. Because how could a man with an FM-station public persona persuade a scared nation he ever had any more gravitas?
While Brexit might have offered a ready supply of gags, the coronavirus crisis simply does not. And inevitably, with hundreds of his countrymen and women dead and dying, Johnson has since been mugged by reality.
Of course, circumstances change. Politicians change course with them.
@joncstone French press reporting that Emmanuel Macron phoned Boris Johnson on Friday
But the pattern of decision-making from No 10 has been plain: the man is reluctant to risk unpopularity.
On Sunday, after days of trying to coax the country into isolation, still Johnson couldn’t help himself: “I want, of course I do, people to be able to go to the parks, open spaces and enjoy themselves.”
Asked by a reporter when police would begin enforcement of social distancing, Johnson spluttered in faux outrage: “The police?”
Twenty-four hours later, the national toll having climbed up the same slope as Italy’s to 335 dead, he brought in the lockdown he’d previously laughed off: “If you don’t follow the rules, the police will have the powers to enforce them.”
Tweet: Boris on the police
Presumably, he had to prerecord the announcement — no live press conference, no reporters — for fear he’d drift into comedy again.
The British Prime Minister appears to have had to be dragged to action which, for many experts, had for some time been self-evidently necessary.
Some have ascribed to Johnson an ideological reluctance: a libertarian disinclined to inhibit personal freedom. I’m sure it’s much less la-di-da than that.
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Johnson hates public disapproval, but he hates it even more when it’s from those who elevated him into the seat of power: the arch-right wing of the Conservative Party, and the barons of industry that serenade it.
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Johnson famously switched his position on Brexit to secure the political wattage needed for a strike.
From the backbench he crippled then-prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal deal — denouncing it a betrayal of the Brexit referendum — only to sign into law an even less favourable version as her replacement.
Now, this same dynamic is at play with the deadly coronavirus sweeping the country, and the world.
It’s neatly captured by the absurd cheerleading for Johnson from the once-establishment broadsheet The Daily Telegraph, owned by the billionaire Brexiteers, the Barclay brothers.
Up and down Whitehall, the paper has become known as “The Daily Boris”, not least after it paid the man 275,000 pounds a year ($545,000) for a weekly column that was often splashed on page one.
As the health crisis has rolled on, and community restrictions have been gradually unveiled, the paper has been calling for Downing Street to make haste slowly.
Before the Monday night shutdown, The Telegraph thundered: “There is talk of this effective lockdown going on for three months but that is too long.”
“Above all,” it declaimed, “we need a plan to get out of this sooner rather than later. The country needs to see light at the end of the tunnel — preferably a very short one”.
On Tuesday, after Johnson announced the closure of all non-essential businesses, the banner headline read: “End of freedom”. Inside, its editor warned “people need to have an idea when this will end”.
The paper also expressed its gratitude that Johnson “exhibited a welcome and characteristic optimism about seeing a way through amid the gloom”.
But when I went to the supermarket on Tuesday morning, there was little in the way of optimism. Rather, there was a stampede.
After Monday night’s volte-face, the local Sainsbury’s was nothing short of feral. When the door opened, I was almost knocked to the ground. Men and women, all adults, had broken into an open sprint.
Some have been bewildered by Johnson’s leadership. Others have been dismayed. But what seems clear is that for many, his attempts to quell panic by minimising the severity of the virus have only exacerbated it.
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