Why Boris Johnson is the prime minister who can’t ‘Get Covid Done’

PUBLISHED: 18:33 06 June 2020 | UPDATED: 18:36 06 June 2020

Boris Johnson makes a speech to Conservative Party supporters. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA.

Boris Johnson makes a speech to Conservative Party supporters. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA.

PA Archive/PA Images

Boris Johnson’s biggest error on coronavirus has been to treat it as a challenge like Brexit, says MARION VAN RENTERGHEM.

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Let’s start with a story... Once upon a time, a new God made a sudden apparition in 10 Downing Street and the people named Him Brexit. Those who worship Him hear what they wish to hear, and what they first heard was that He promised they would go to paradise only on the condition that they left the European Union. “Get Brexit done” was the word the Apostles believed. Hence the Apostles repeated after Him: “Get Brexit done! Get Brexit done!” and it was a great, great success. A landslide. God rewarded the most enthusiastic of His Apostles, Boris, by entitling him “Prime Apostle”.

Then came a plague from China. An unknown virus. The Prime Apostle climbed back up the mountains to take His Commandment from God Brexit, and as far as he can remember, he reckons he heard Him say: “Get Brexit done again.” Therefore Boris the Apostle did the same as he did before. To tackle the virus, he obeyed the dogmas of Brexit. Why convert? Good old dogmas had turned out to be so successful.

The moral of the story is that Brexit dogmas stained Boris Johnson’s approach to the coronavirus: the same tactics were used, the same clichés, the same sermons on national pride and British exceptionalism; comparisons with the Second World War; a sense of island greatness that would protect the country; an illusion of a heroic and invincible Great Britain which would resist the virus as it did with the Nazis – as opposed to France or Italy, those poor southern buggers.

We saw the same optimistic energy, the same foggy incantations,the same bluster and amateurism, the same denial of reality. Boris Johnson boasted of shaking hands with people in hospitals treating infected patients, he skipped Cobra meetings and evaded difficult questions; then he claimed an “apparent success” as his country clocked up the worst death rate in Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty ImagesFrench President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For what reasons? Why did he behave that way? The only valuable explanation is political: ideology – the political version of religion. By nature, Johnson is pragmatically self-centred and not characteristically ideological.

But he has kept in his soul the memory of those magic dogmas which led him to victory before. He has become a Brexit addict.

In the name of God Brexit, Johnson needed to deliver on his promise of a strong, global Britain. The pandemic threatened all that, so he dithered, rather than tackle it. While other countries locked down, Britain delayed.

In the name of God Brexit, Johnson needed the UK to “take back control” from Europe and prove to the world that it could face the pandemic alone. So, Britain missed out on an EU ventilator scheme and stayed aloof of another for PPE, opting instead to source items from Turkey, which failed to meet safety standards.

In the name of God Brexit, the prime minister needed to keep by his side Dominic Cummings, the architect of those dogmas, prayers and slogans that had delivered Brexit. Were he to go, there would be a big hole in the project. For Johnson, Cummings is Brexit. A human clone of his God. Therefore the Prime Apostle protected his adviser beyond reason, even though he had shattered their successful sermons on the “Will of the people” against the “Elite”, by breaking the rules of the lockdown.

And, last but not least, in the name of God Brexit, Johnson may let the negotiations with Brussels end in no deal. It will be at the risk of losing everything, but so what? Ideology and dogmas will stay safe and healthy.

By weird coincidence, the celebrated date of January 31, 2020, was not only the official consecration of the divorce between the UK and the EU. It was also the date that the first coronavirus cases were confirmed on British soil.

Johnson seems hardly have paid attention to this, so focused was he on his own glory and the victory of his masterpiece, that thing he had promised to the people as his own access to power: Brexit. He had other things to worry about too. He needed to invest massively in infrastructure and the NHS (following years of austerity introduced by his own party), and to satisfy the demands of the corporate interests who had supported him and the Labour voters who had voted for him. He needed to deliver both deregulation and public spending.

Founded on contradictory, unsustainable promises and on a hell of a nerve, his program reflected the very special Tory he is: economically right and left, socially libertarian, politically nationalist, and populist in his strategy of conquest.

Up to now, he had the golden touch. But then came the party pooper: coronavirus. Pinning down the British economy, it has also pinned down a part of his Brexit plans, which involved high public indebtedness.

As a populist, Johnson is also a gambling addict. He loves nothing more than taking bigger risks to try and win. Double or nothing, he will always try one more card, throw one more dice. After he first gambled on no lockdown, he was forced to a U-turn by alarming forecasts about the cost in human lives and on the NHS’ inability to cope.

The UK now holds not only the worst Covid death toll in Europe, but also the most pessimistic recession forecast (a drop of 14% of the national wealth, according to the governor of the Bank of England).


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Late to lock down, the gambling prime minister is now easing the measures, hoping an economic miracle will erase the memory of the death toll.

His charm, his brio, his resurrection after being seriously ill, meant he retained much popularity. But his fatal mistakes are now visible.

Even the Spectator, the magazine he once edited and which often likes to portray my country as a place of leftists permanently on strike, has praised France as an example. This gives a hint to the extent of the shambles Johnson’s government has reached.

In France, we used to envy Anglo-Saxon pragmatism in politics. We tend to prioritise intellectual theories over actually dealing with situations, and big principles inherited from our Revolution over economic efficiency.

Out of shameful jealousy, we tend to display a condescending attitude towards the British, who used to care less than us about social welfare, but excel in taking the reality into account before building theories.

Faced with the coronovirus crisis, it strangely turned out to the opposite. Macron’s France became pragmatic and Johnson’s Britain, blindly ideological.

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