A friend emailed me earlier this week in despair about the Prime Minister. ‘Boris reminds me of a hereditary king — Edward II or Henry VI — who is so staggeringly incompetent that he must be removed before doing too much damage,’ he wrote. ‘I felt the same way about May but Boris is worse.’
He is not the only person feeling like this. It pains me to say it, but I too have given up on Boris. The final straw was hearing him talk about his plans to create an army of ‘Covid marshals’ last week — Britain’s very own, curtain-twitching version of the Stasi.
What on earth happened to the freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character I voted for? Oliver Hardy has left the stage, replaced by Oliver Cromwell. His government has even said it wants to lower the speed limit on motorways to 60 mph. Didn’t Boris once say that voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3? Where did that guy go?
Some people think it’s all to do with his bout of coronavirus. As one person put it to me, surviving a near-death experience can affect people in one of two ways. Either you become more devil-may-care, thinking it could all end at any moment so why not live life to the full; or you become super-cautious, having been left feeling vulnerable by your brush with mortality. According to that armchair psychologist, Boris has gone through door number two. A less generous theory is that the disease actually damaged his brain in some way — and there is some evidence that cognitive decline can lower your appetite for risk. Whether the damage was psychological or physiological, the implication is clear: he’s no longer fit to be prime minister and should step down as soon as he’s got Brexit done.
This explanation is attractive to former Boris enthusiasts like me because it lets us off the hook. It’s not that we overestimated him; rather that he’s changed in a way we couldn’t have anticipated. But the difficulty with those theories is that his mishandling of the crisis predates his battle with Covid-19.
Few would dispute that he failed to give the pandemic the attention he should have done in January and February, time he could have spent devising an effective containment strategy. Come March, he was just buffeted by events, one minute saying we should ‘take it on the chin’, the next imposing a full lockdown. His lack of engagement with the detail, both before and after his spell in intensive care, means the government’s response has been led by others around the cabinet table, like Matt Hancock, who seem to be wholly captured by a small coterie of scientific advisors who decided early on that Sars-CoV-2 was ‘the big one’ and have been unwilling to abandon that hypothesis in the light of all the evidence to the contrary.
Boris’s supporters cannot claim they were unaware of this risk. His inability to focus on anything for very long was constantly flagged up by those who’d worked closely with him, most recently at the Foreign Office. My response when this was put to me by his detractors was that he had been preparing for the role of prime minister all his life, had a heroic conception of himself as a world-historical individual and wanted to be installed in the pantheon of immortals as one of Britain’s greats. So even if it was only for vainglorious reasons, he would apply himself in No. 10 in a way he never had before. Hal would become Henry V, not Henry VI.
Unfortunately, Boris’s critics have been proved correct. Funnily enough, one of the most prominent, Michael Gove, is now de facto deputy prime minister. Four years ago, when justifying his decision to knife Boris in the Tory leadership contest, Gove said it was because, having seen him operate up close, he’d concluded he lacked the character for the top job. Not lazy exactly, but not serious enough. At the time I took this with a pinch of salt, thinking Gove was exaggerating to make it sound as if he was motivated by public–spiritedness rather than personal ambition. Now I think he was right.
Hope followed by disappointment is a familiar story in politics, a cycle as old as history itself. I should have been better prepared. In future, I will not be so naive.
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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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