LONDON: A strange thing happened last week. An awful lot of British voters discovered they were much more attached to Boris Johnson than they realised.
Since Brexit, the UK prime minister has been a divisive figure, but his struggle with COVID-19 left all but his most partisan foes shocked, scared and desperate for news of recovery.
One ex-cabinet colleague observed: “It reminded people of why they liked him when he was mayor of London.”
THE LIKEABLE MR JOHNSON
In such times the country would be fearful for any leader, but Johnson’s vitality made his brush with death more shocking. On news of his recovery, one newspaper seemed to forget the nearly 1,000 deaths that day, declaring on its front page: It “really is a Good Friday”.
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Johnson was already a powerful premier with a particularly regal edifice around him — a court of close aides in Downing Street and a largely untested cabinet. Even so, before he got sick it was possible to see him politically undone by the crisis, not least over the laggardly response and early errors.
Amid the confusion and strategy shifts, Tories were star-struck by the confident performance of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.
But Johnson’s illness has augmented his authority. He may be recuperating for some time but no one now doubts where power resides.
Critics will rightly question his stewardship of the crisis. They are right to be angry.
The UK death toll may end up as the highest in Europe and there are issues around the availability of protective clothing for health workers.
But his personal crisis has replenished his political capital and shown the absence of successors in his league when it comes to shaping public opinion.
His gift for communication and political ability had long put him closer to voters than opponents would wish to admit. The emotional film released soon after he left hospital was superbly pitched.
Since the Brexit campaign, he has allied himself with the National Health Service. Now, with his heartfelt praise for the organisation which “saved my life”, a Tory leader has made himself high priest of the institution, described as the UK’s national religion.
WHAT WILL IT ALL COUNT FOR
True, even Winston Churchill’s political skills counted for little in the election after the Second World War.
But Johnson has more than four years until he need face voters. The facts of the crisis may finally overcome sentiment but, if scapegoats are needed, he is unlikely to be among them.
His courtiers are already scrambling to blame early mistakes on others, partly also to justify the drive for Whitehall reform.
This moment raises him to a higher pantheon of leaders; those who enjoy a direct rapport with the public and who seem to exist at one remove from their cabinet, presiding over ministers who do their bidding. The failures will all be theirs; the success his. No more of this “first among equals” nonsense.
Johnson has worn many guises in his career. The political jester, the globalist and socially liberal mayor, the ardent Brexiter, the romantic populist, the British Gaullist and the Conservative leader running against his own party’s record on austerity.
After the bitterness of Brexit, he has the chance to recreate himself again, should he wish.
How might he use this new status? We cannot know, but there are some solid bets.
To deflect blame for shortages caused by austerity he will shower resources on the NHS and other services, not least social care. A hypothecated health tax, long resisted by the Treasury, may find its hour has finally come.
He will champion British resilience in areas that have been shown to be crucial, notably pharmaceuticals, life sciences and medical supplies.
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While focused on getting Britain back to business as normal, he will try to weave a narrative of a new social contract — perhaps addressing some of the inequalities most exposed by the crisis.
But he will seek to harness the notion of national collective endeavour to ease the pain of the long economic recovery. If, as many in government expect, he needs to extend the Brexit transition, it will now be seen not as a recognition of reality but as an act of statesmanship.
Another area for readjustment might be immigration, an issue on which Johnson is instinctively more liberal than some of his allies. He will not abandon his points-based plan. But the recognition of NHS and social care workers from overseas, and the disproportionate death toll among those of immigrant origin, gives him room to soften the tone and erase its most pernicious aspects.
A crisis that might have wrecked Johnson looks set, through the misfortune of serious illness, to have strengthened him.
His original agenda has been thrown off course but, as he plans the rebuilding that must follow, his bond with the public is deeper than ever.
Robert Shrimsley is UK chief political commentator and UK editor at large of the Financial Times.