It was a low-key comeback. After a week in hospital, and two more spent recuperating at Chequers, the prime minister’s official country residence, Boris Johnson arrived at Downing Street last weekend in an inconspicuous Volkswagen mini-van. He slipped inside. There was no victory sign or cheerful wave.
For an unprecedented period, the prime minister had been missing. He was either laid low from his coronavirus symptoms, in intensive care in St Thomas’ hospital in Westminster, or recovering from what the tabloids called his “brush with death”. It was clear that few major government decisions had been made in Johnson’s long absence.
Now, according to aides, he was “raring to go”; he was ready to “take control” of government affairs and to “bounce back”. The country, not to mention deferential cabinet colleagues, were waiting for some answers. Was Johnson in favour of easing lockdown? When and how might this happen? And were his laissez-faire instincts a thing of the past?
There were personal questions, too. Namely, whether Johnson’s experience of grave illness had recast his personality for the better. In the pre-virus days, the serious politician played second fiddle to the crowd-pleasing comedian and columnist. Now, some saw Johnson taking on a new persona befitting our pandemic-shaped age: that of a statesman.
On Monday, for instance, the Times reported an unnamed cabinet minister saying his illness “has changed him … He now has an emotional connection to the NHS that you don’t get from anything except a near-death experience.”
The early signals, though, were mixed. At 9am on Monday morning Johnson appeared in front of Downing Street. His five-minute speech showed a man labouring to breathe as he spoke. His clothes seemed to hang off him – his appearance and demeanour a physical embodiment of the effects of the infection.
He gave no hint as to when schools and non-essential shops might reopen and some measure of normal life resume.
Nor was there acknowledgement – tacit or otherwise – that his time away had clarified his thinking, or made him inclined to choose this moment to “level with the country”, as he has previously promised to do, about the decisions that have been taken, the potential mistakes that have been made over the timing of the lockdown.
Instead, Johnson asked the nation for patience. “I believe we are coming now to the end of the first phase of the conflict”, he said. There seemed to be deliberate echoes here of Churchill’s famous second world war speech about the “end of the beginning”. Johnson offered further flourishes. The disease – as he himself knew – was “an invisible mugger”. Thanks to our collective efforts, Britain had “wrestled it to the ground”.
The phrase didn’t really capture the grim and multitudinous truth. By Monday more than 20,000 people had officially died of the virus – in hospitals, care centres, or in quiet agony at home, surrounded by loved ones. They were not so much mugged as extinguished before their time. By the end of the week the official tally was 27,000-plus, and probably much higher.
To his critics, who have included normally loyal supporters in the rightwing media, there are still searching questions about the prime minister’s decisions in late February and March – or lack of them.
By some analyses, the UK is on track to have the highest death rate in Europe. Other countries, led by Germany and Denmark, have done much better. Were they less complacent and more organised? Either way, they are now emerging from lockdown.
Another moment for Johnson to address these issues might have been prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. He was due for the first time to face up to Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader. But the evening before, Downing Street wouldn’t say whether Johnson planned to turn up, which was odd.There was speculation Johnson might still be somewhat unwell.
In fact, something else was going on. On Wednesday morning, Johnson was at his partner Carrie Symonds’ side as she gave birth to a baby boy at an NHS hospital. It was the latest dramatic event in what had been an extraordinary period for Johnson, several lives squashed into one almost: Brexit, Covid-19, and the unparalleled shut-down of national life.
A photo taken on the stairs of Downing Street showed a grinning Johnson, back from his fiancee’s bedside. He looks elated and nobody could begrudge the couple their happiness. Well-wishers noted babies change people for the better; cynics pointed out that Johnson has been a father five – or more – times before, and that this arrival might prove a distraction from the tasks ahead.
In the nine months since he became PM, Johnson has frequently seemed semi-engaged. Over New Year he had a holiday in the Caribbean. In February he spent 12 days at Chevening, the government’s estate in Kent, missing five Cobra meetings as Covid-19 spread from China. Reportedly he took weekends off.
Former colleagues have joked Johnson prefers to do many things badly, rather than one thing well – more of a chairman than a CEO.
Downing Street aides say this is wrong. They insist Johnson is devoting his full attention to the coronavirus crisis. One ministerial adviser said he was busier at the end of his time off than was admitted. He asked for submissions on a whole range of issues, not just Covid-19. His time in hospital reignited his desire to take care of the NHS, and to get back to work, the adviser said.
Johnson is now determined to “turn the tide” on the virus by mid-June, officials suggest. In his absence ministers have argued about the right way forward. Johnson is keen to take back control of the political situation, officials stress, and is reportedly annoyed at leaks suggesting the cabinet is split between pro-economy hawks and cautious lockdown doves.
So what next? Before falling sick, Johnson could be counted among those who were bullish about the prospect of easing restrictions and returning to business as usual relatively quickly.
Multiple sources with knowledge of his thinking say some of that optimism has faded. They says this partly reflects his own experiences in intensive care – but also the changing scientific picture presented to him.
“There has been briefing from some close to No 10 against Matt [Hancock]. But the truth is the PM’s position is much closer to Matt’s than those pushing for measures to be lifted. Dom [Raab] has come round to that view as well,” one cabinet source said.
It was Johnson, apparently, who approved the decision to add care home figures to the daily death tally – a risky move towards transparency, given the horrifying numbers involved.
And then on Thursday the prime minister appeared for the first time in well over a month at the government’s 5pm press conference. Again, he was breathless. And more hesitant than usual, misreading the figure for deaths.
And again, he chose not to address the questions that have been asked of him personally, or his government.
So far, neither he, nor anybody in his top team, has wanted to meet the challenge set them by Intisar Chowdhury, the 18-year-old son of an NHS doctor who died with coronavirus. The teenager has asked for an apology, for ministers to “openly acknowledge there have been mistakes in handling this virus.”
At the daily briefing, Johnson stressed the allegedly good news. The UK had passed the peak of the disease. It was was on a downward slope. He promised details next week of how lockdown might end. There would be a “roadmap” and a “menu of options”.
There was a warning, too. Johnson likened the pandemic to a pleasant European motoring holiday that had got into unexpected difficulty. Britain was driving through a “huge Alpine tunnel”. Ahead were “sunlight and pasture”. It needed to keep control, lest it run into a “second and bigger mountain”.
He claimed the UK had avoided the tragedy that had engulfed other places. Asked if his time in hospital had altered him, he said he was “very, very lucky” and paid tribute to the “thousands of people” who had been less fortunate.
For the moment, Johnson’s political opponents recognise he is unassailable. His popularity ratings are high. The country, polls suggest, is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for now, while the virus is still a threat and the NHS is under great strain.
The new baby will generate further goodwill. There have been gushing headlines from the pro-Boris ringwing media, with more to come when the boy is named, and the first pictures emerge.
It is the perfect plotline in a time of gloom. But Johnson will not be able to put off a reckoning forever. The government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said as much on Thursday when he suggested the country needed to focus on the crisis in hand, and not dwell – for now – on how we got here.
But they followed a different template: level with the public, admit mistakes, explain the facts. Will Johnson do likewise? There were few indications last week that Johnson is inclined to do so.
So far, at least, the new Boris looks remarkably like the old one.