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Slow Views

Boris gets boring

Monday 14 June 2021

After the shimmering showbiz of the G7 summit, the prime minister has been forced by a pesky Covid variant to be dull and sensible. He hates nothing more


What a comedown. What a drag. What a bore. I mean, look at it from Boris Johnson’s point of view: only yesterday he was hosting the gig of a lifetime at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, beaming like a supersize Truman Capote, charming his guests at the geopolitical equivalent of the Black and White Ball.

And what does the prime minister have to do today? Tell the whole country that Freedom Day is off, that’s what. Confirm what has become increasingly clear in the past week: that the end of all Covid restrictions will not now, after all, go ahead on 21 June and that we must all pack up the bunting, swallow our disappointment and await further instructions.

How the PM must loathe this. After a weekend at the seaside with the leaders of the world’s richest nations, capering on the beach with his new friend Joe Biden, he must now switch roles completely, from reveller-in-chief to Debbie Downer. When I asked one of Johnson’s advisers how he was feeling about today’s statement on lockdown, the answer was brisk: “He hates it.”

Never forget that, in origin, spirit and instincts, this is a populist regime. Johnson loves nothing more than spectacle and simplicity. Give him a referendum or a general election to win, or a big show to run, and he’s formidable.

Watching his performance in Cornwall this weekend, I was transported back to the relish with which, as London mayor, he played ringmaster at the 2012 Olympics. “I’m hoovering up the credit!” he was heard to say at that great sporting occasion. “All this credit!”

The same glee was richly evident in Carbis Bay, as he hosted his fellow world leaders with, it must be said, quite some panache. None of them bothered to conceal their relief that Donald Trump was no longer at the table, urging them all to drink bleach as an aperitif or threatening to break up Nato. And – who can blame them? – they looked genuinely relieved to be gathered in a gorgeous seaside setting after all these months, rather than staring at one another with a diplomatic rictus on a Zoom call.

If being prime minister were limited to campaigns and canapés, Johnson would already be one of the all-time greats. Alas for him (and us), there is quite a lot more to the job than that.

Organising a lobster barbecue on the beach is great, but it is considerably less important than, say, making the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol work. The PM was visibly exasperated at yesterday’s end-of-summit press conference to be asked so many questions about the unresolved issue of the Irish border, and his spat with Emmanuel Macron over the precise constitutional status of the province. Brexit, Johnson protested, had “occupied a vestigial, vanishingly small proportion of our deliberations”.

Maybe so – but it also loomed over every moment of the proceedings. For Johnson’s G7 partners, Brexit is, and will remain, an inexplicable act of national self-harm, a positively bizarre decision to sunder the UK from the world’s largest single market, and from a bloc of nations that, for all its imperfections, will have a major role in the geopolitical realignments that lie ahead.

Of course, Macron knows perfectly well that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom – but he also knows that it is not quite as simple as that, and hasn’t been since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave Dublin a say in the governance of the North.

Dominic Raab may find it “offensive”, as he put it in interviews yesterday, to be reminded of such complexities, but the foreign secretary’s sensitivities are irrelevant when set against the constitutional and commercial reality of the present impasse over Northern Ireland. That reality has deep roots: the UK’s membership of the EU was a fundamental pillar of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – resolving, as it did, the question of the Irish border – and Brexit is, by any measure, fundamentally incompatible with that historic deal.

The heart of the matter is that all this is embarrassingly obvious, and it is embarrassingly awkward when the prime minister and his senior colleagues continue to embrace magical thinking, insisting that the problem is one of the EU’s contrivance, a symptom of its “legal purism” and “Brussels inflexibility”. At such moments of piqued and defensive delusion, this country can look very small indeed – dangerously close to an imposter at such gatherings of great nations.

Indeed, it is a characteristic of great nations that they understand, at varying levels of consciousness, what the French historian Fernand Braudel called la longue durée: the long haul, the challenges measured in decades and centuries. But this is not the way Johnson sees the world at all.

By temperament, he is a political mayfly, defined by his impatience to squeeze whatever advantage he can from a particular challenge or moment of crisis, and then move on swiftly. As he put it to The Atlantic’s Tom McTague in a recent profile piece: “Do we have to talk about Brexit? We’ve sucked that lemon dry.”

The infantilism of this remark is breathtaking. Yet it is entirely consistent with the slogan that helped Johnson win a hefty majority in the 2019 general election: “Get Brexit done.” You see it so often in his face when he is pressed on the detail: why do we all contaminate his brilliance by still banging on about it? Why must we be so tedious, so pedestrian, so pedantic? Can’t we turn the page to his next triumph?

Which brings us to the agony of today’s announcement. Having attended the Nato summit in Brussels, the PM will return to make his statement about Covid restrictions at a Downing Street press conference – each word turning to ash in his mouth, every fibre of his being rebelling against this victory of dull caution over swashbuckling liberation.

The best argument against a delay is that the public is well ahead of the government when it comes to the relaxation of restrictions: just look out of the window. Since Step 3 of the roadmap went ahead, as planned, on 17 May, the observation and enforcement of NPI – non-pharmaceutical interventions – have been patchy at best.

The Saturday night beach barbecue at the G7 summit was officially “Covid secure” and subject to social distancing: but pictures of the cook-out show that it was no such thing and that the world’s leaders mingled as they would in normal times. 

Irresponsible? Of course. But absolutely in sync with the way in which their electorates are now, to a greater or lesser extent, behaving. They have had enough. They want the jab, and their lives back, and they want it all now.

“This is what makes Monday so hard,” according to one Cabinet minister. “On the one hand, the vaccine story is a triumph, yes? But on the other – you know, telling people we need more time, and that the summer is fairly fucked. Not great.”

The epidemiological case for a postponement is clear enough. The Delta variant is radically more transmissible than its predecessors, and now accounts for 91 per cent of cases in this country. So far, the death rate in the present surge remains mercifully low, but hospitalisations are rising, and case numbers are increasing exponentially.

The vaccine, it appears, has weakened but not yet broken the link between infection and serious illness. More to the point: about 44 per cent of adults have not yet received both doses, and more than two million of these are aged 50 or older. A delay of a month would enable at least nine million more people to be given their second jab.

Yet the most important consideration in all of this is a single word: irreversible. Since the PM unveiled the roadmap on 22 February, it has been at the heart of his personal lexicon, and of his political promise. From now on, he has pledged, the so-called “liberty traffic” will be strictly one-way.

It has become close to an article of faith for Johnson that there cannot, must not, will not be a fourth lockdown. Even if the pathogen mutates into a 2,000-foot tall Covzilla lizard, breathing death rays as it roams the land, slouching towards Downing Street, the PM will not be budged from his decision.

Or so he believes. I do wonder whether Johnson’s resolve would hold out quite as ruggedly as he insists if (as we must fervently hope never happens) a truly deadly, vaccine-busting mutation of the virus were to arise in the unjabbed terrains of the world and find its way to these shores.

For now, however, he has persuaded himself that he will never again impose a national lockdown. It follows, therefore, that the ending of the present restrictions must be as close to definitive as can be hoped for. And – on the basis of the raging spread of the Delta variant – he has concluded, much against his hopes and personal inclination, that 21 June is just too soon to let freedom ring.

So we must all linger, at least officially, in lockdown limbo for a bit longer. After the dopamine hit of Carbis Bay and all the geopolitical frolics on the beach, this will be a true Black Dog moment for the PM. It is messy, complicated, disappointing: the opposite of the spectacle that, more than anything, he loves to create.

It is also, on balance, a sensible precaution. Let’s get as many jabs into as many arms as we can before removing the Covid corset entirely. But since when did “sensible” play a part in this prime minister’s thinking?

It reminds him, indeed, of his worst fears: that most of government is not exciting, instantly gratifying, or rewarded with immediate public affirmation. All prime ministers discover this (if they did not know it already), and all, in their different ways, make peace with it.

All, that is, but one. This is what makes Boris Johnson so different, so contemporary (in the worst sense) and so unusual in his combination of campaigning genius and administrative haplessness. For if there is one thing that he fears more than death itself, it is doing what he must do today: which is to be boring.