As new Covid restrictions are finalised, the PM needs to break the habit of a lifetime and speak candidly about the great trials that lie ahead
“You should break out of your characteristic gloom, if I may say so, Andrew.” So said Boris Johnson yesterday morning in what was almost a throwaway line to the BBC’s Andrew Marr. Why couldn’t his interviewer, in the words of the song, look on the bright side of life?
Well, for plenty of obvious epidemiological reasons, with some of which the prime minister had himself been grappling in the preceding half hour. Covid infections are spiking sharply, as the new variant of the virus tears across the land: 54,990 new cases were reported yesterday, a week-on-week increase of 24,489. Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, warned that these numbers were “mild” compared with what we should expect in the days ahead.
In his interview, the prime minister admitted that he was “fully, fully reconciled” to imposing even tougher Covid restrictions this week in response to the surge in transmission.
Marr pressed him on the failure to stockpile the promised number of vaccine doses by the end of 2020 (530,000 versus the pledge of four million); on the bedlam over which schools would be open this morning, and which not; on the possibility that GCSEs and A Levels might have to be cancelled for a second year; and, above all, on the pattern of behaviour during the pandemic whereby his government has resisted advice from its scientists only to take the suggested measures too late.
It was, to say the least, a dispiriting inventory. And yet the PM could not help himself, insisting – by my count, six times – that “schools are safe”: a worthless statement, given the very wide disparity between those which have been made at least partially Covid-secure and the many cramped and under-ventilated buildings which have not.
The extent to which teachers are at risk of infection is still being investigated, and the case for them to receive the vaccine early as front-line workers – as a precautionary measure – is growing in force. It is no longer seriously contested that school pupils are all too often asymptomatic super-spreaders.
Parents watching the programme were simultaneously checking their email inboxes to see if they should take their children to school this morning. In such circumstances, the blanket assertion that “schools are safe” was worse than useless. Yet the PM cannot help himself.
When not talking nonsense about the educational conundrum facing the country, he was boasting that the UK “remains the first country to get a stage-three-approved vaccine into people’s arms” – true, but no answer to Marr’s question about the stalled supply of doses to vaccination sites.
On Brexit, he was reduced to the boilerplate language that has been familiar since the referendum campaign five years ago: “fantastic companies – fantastic products… we have a massive opportunity to expand our horizons and to think globally and to think big.”
Johnson is very good indeed at winning campaigns. The bulldozer of his confidence, irrepressible optimism and relentlessly upbeat language triumphed in the 2016 vote on Brexit and, even more impressively, in the 2019 general election. He is a born neuro-linguist, defeating his opponents’ arguments and the voters’ doubts with weapons-grade bombast.
But slogans alone are not enough in a pandemic. Pathogens don’t care about assertions. The PM loves to talk about “levelling up”. Right now, we need him to level with us.
In this respect, it is striking how unlike Winston Churchill, his supposed hero and role model, he actually is. As one of his former Cabinet colleagues put it to me: “Churchill offered the country ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. Boris says: ‘It’ll all be fine, folks.’ Needing to be loved is a bad basis for leading a country through an emergency.”
For those fighting to save lives in the nation’s wards, the smirks and the boasts that were initially an irritation have become an intolerable insult. One senior doctor, taking a break between shifts in the intensive care unit, observed to me recently that Johnson had displayed statesmanlike candour only once – on 12 March 2020, after an emergency Cobra meeting.
“I must level with you,” the PM said on that occasion, “I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” That was a moment of true leadership. But the moment passed.
It is hard, of course, to break the habit of a lifetime. Johnson’s implacable cheerfulness has been the essence of his brand for decades. In almost all circumstances, he scorns Eeyores, Debbie Downers, and Bad News Bears. Three days after Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in November 2016, the then foreign secretary said “to my beloved European friends and colleagues that it’s time that we snapped out of the general doom and gloom about the result of this election, and collective ‘whinge-o-rama’ that seems to be going on in some places.”
Indeed, this insistence upon the upbeat is a characteristic that he shares with Trump. In the outgoing US president’s case, one can trace the direct personal influence of the hugely successful religious huckster Norman Vincent Peale – author of the bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) – who officiated at Trump’s first wedding in 1977. In February 2020, the President promised that the virus would disappear “like a miracle”. Yesterday, as Trump’s term of office slunk shamefully to its end with the scandal of his taped call to Georgia’s secretary of state, 201,476 new cases were reported in the US.
Johnson’s particular strain of positive thinking is not religious in origin, owing more to the English public school tradition of ingrained confidence and a cheerful sense of entitlement to the rewards of the world. It draws eclectically upon British exceptionalism, the grandiloquence of the Oxford Union and the prose of P.G. Wodehouse.
Naturally, optimism in a leader can be a considerable national asset – to boost public morale, business confidence and a shared sense of mission. But not, as Barbara Ehrenreich argues in her book Smile or Die, when it is “delusional”, “part of our ideology”, and – most important of all – “driven by a terrible insecurity”.
Witness the nervous speed with which Johnson purged from the Cabinet those who did not share his optimistic view of Brexit – leaving him with a top team long on gurning loyalty, short on ministerial competence. Witness, too, this government’s love of affirmation, boosterism and the language of political incantation: “world-beating”, “ramping up” (or “massively ramping up”), “oven-ready”, “impregnable shield”, “game-changing”, “cutting-edge”, “full British Brexit”, and so on.
Considered in aggregate, such rhetoric is evidence of a collective neurosis – a reluctance to apprehend reality in all its grainy, gritty, contradictory complexity. At the best of times, such a reluctance is a serious defect in a government. During a pandemic, it is a positively lethal shortcoming – not only because it postpones the taking of urgent, potentially life-saving decisions, but because political bravado, at odds with the facts on the ground, erodes trust in public health policy when it is most desperately needed.
This is the second year of the pandemic. There are grounds for cautious optimism but not for reckless promises, nor infantilising pledges about the likely duration of the crisis. Look at the turbulent story of the past eleven months, the setbacks, the disappointments, the cack-handedness, the phony assurances that it would all be over by – when? Take your pick: there have been so many dates suggested and missed. If the prime minister wants this to be a happy new year, he must first make it an honest one.