For Boris Johnson’s role model, it was so very different: in December 1941, Winston Churchill’s doctor, Sir Charles Wilson, concealed from him the fact that he had had a minor heart attack, believing that this diagnosis might have a “disastrous” impact upon the course of the war. In June 1953, Churchill had a serious stroke that was kept out of the press. For weeks, his son-in-law, Christopher Soames, forged the signature of the incapacitated PM.
Johnson, in contrast, operates in the goldfish bowl of modern politics. His hospitalisation last night was always going to be a huge news story, edging the Queen’s statement on Covid-19 out of the top slot on some bulletins.
High office involves a necessary tension between private life and public responsibility. We should wish the prime minister a speedy and full recovery. But the health of a head of government is not just a personal matter. At a time of crisis, it has implications for the whole body politic as well Johnson’s own.
As it happens, Johnson’s well-being, the prospects of his premiership and the national interest will all be best served by the same course of action. It is overwhelmingly clear that, at a minimum, he needs to step back from the cares of office for a few days to allow himself to convalesce properly.
True, his temporary absence from the field will put Dominic Raab – already chairing C-19 crisis meetings – at the helm: the foreign secretary and first secretary of state is not the sharpest knife in the Cabinet canteen, and there are concerns that he will be incapable of managing the strategic battles between, for instance, Rishi Sunak (relax the lockdown as soon as possible to get the economy moving) and Matt Hancock (keep the lockdown in place as long as necessary to enable the buckling NHS to cope).
In fact, Raab’s chances of keeping order would be improved by the removal of ambiguity – by a statement that the PM was taking a short time away from the helm, all the better to recharge his batteries. This would be an act of strength, not weakness; a declaration of confidence by a politician who sits atop an 80-seat Commons majority that he has nothing to fear from looking after his health or from his team.
If ever there were a moment for maturity all round – embracing all the backbiters of the political and media class – this is it. Get well soon, prime minister.