Boris Johnson: a changed prime minister
In December 2019 Boris Johnson’s resounding election win made him the most powerful UK politician since Tony Blair. Having reshaped his party in his image, he had the means and the mandate not just to deliver Brexit, but to ensure his brand of Conservatism would dominate British politics for the next decade. Then everything changed. Sebastian Whale reports
Those who have studied the prime minister believe he has inherited many traits from his mother. But a characteristic that Boris Johnson has picked up from his father is a certain ambivalence towards illness.
In her biography of Johnson, first published in 2011, Sonia Purnell writes: ‘Stanley rarely admits to illness himself nor noticies it in others. The same is true of Boris, who is also, in adulthood, seldom known to be ill.’ An unnamed observer told Purnell: “I’d never put him in charge of hospitals.”
Victoria Borwick, a Conservative politician who represented the former mayor on the London Health Commission, says: “When we were talking to Boris about primary care, he almost sort of said, ‘I don’t think I can remember when I last went to my GP’. Not that he was ever unthinking or uncaring about anyone who was unwell or anything like that, but he just didn’t suffer from ill health himself and he just got on with it.”
The former deputy London mayor adds: “Health almost passed him by in that sense.”
Both father and son showed flashes of this attribute early on during the coronavirus crisis. On 3 March, Johnson spoke of shaking hands “with everybody” at a hospital where there were confirmed patients with Covid-19. The day after his son urged the public to “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other social venues”, Stanley told ITV: “Of course, I’ll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub.” Downing St was also forced to issue a clarification after Johnson said he would do his best to visit his mother, Charlotte, on Mother’s Day.
Boris is not the sort of man to shut down society. He is a good time guy, he likes to enjoy himself and he likes to see other people enjoying themselves
At the daily Downing Street press conferences, Johnson, whose political appeal has derived from his positive outlook, did start to strike a more sombre tone. “We have all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation,” he told the nation on 12 March. “I must level with the British public,” he continued. “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
The seriousness with which the prime minister was taking the issue was still met with displays of his more laissez-faire approach. When asked by a journalist, he failed to contain his surprise at the notion of the police being used to enforce any prospective lockdown measures. When Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, spoke of instructions for the British people, the PM quickly clarified that they were being given guidelines.
“That was Exhibit A,” says Steve Baker, the Conservative MP. “At that moment, the prime minister was not willing to say ‘these are instructions’.”
The UK lagged behind other European countries in enforcing a lockdown. Johnson and senior advisers from the medical and scientific community spoke of the need to maintain public buy-in for such a move, and cautioned against imposing the restrictions prematurely. Experts at Imperial College London then warned that 250,000 people could perish without more stringent regulations. Understandably concerned, the UK changed tack.
The draconian measures he has since overseen go against much of what Johnson stands for. Should he still be writing his Daily Telegraph column, he would likely be lamenting the shackles in which the economy and its people have been placed while questioning the orthodoxies that underpin them. “I am sure he really hates having to do this,” says Baker, himself a libertarian. “Boris is not the sort of man to shut down society. He is a good time guy, he likes to enjoy himself and he likes to see other people enjoying themselves.”
Prior to the lockdown being enforced on 23 March, Baker sent a supportive message to the PM. ‘If you must lockdown society against your instincts, please do it with a good heart and a clear conscience,’ he wrote. The Wycombe MP explains: “I feel I know him well enough to know how he would feel about it, and I wanted to express sympathy with him.”
Guto Harri, Johnson’s former communications chief in City Hall, argues: “It is a good thing that we have a prime minister who thinks it’s a big deal to order people to stay indoors, not go to work and shut down their business, rather than somebody who thinks instinctively that such decisions are what government is there for.”
Johnson does come from the school of conservatism that seeks to minimise disruption in people’s lives, believing them to know best. Until recently, he opposed the imposition of a so-called sugar tax, citing it as an example of state overreach. He also believes adversity can be overcome through determination, and is a challenger of accepted truths. He idolises Sir Winston Churchill, a leader whose evocative rhetoric is credited with helping to lift the nation through a profoundly tumultuous period.
But, as we all know, the prime minister’s perspective has been shaken by a seismic series of events. Sobered by his own brush with death, he is locked in an internal battle between his political instincts and his responsibilities as the leader of the country.
“He’ll want to unleash the power of the people again, because he will understand that some people are straining at the leash to go out and do things. He will want to enable people to do that,” says Borwick. “But, of course, that will be tempered by the fact he now knows what a terrible virus this is.”
At the end of April, Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds announced the birth of their son. On Twitter, Robert Peston, the political editor of ITV, pondered: ‘Having babies change us. Near-death experiences change us. @BorisJohnson has the full set. So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?’
Twitter being Twitter, the message was seized upon in bad faith, with many pointing out that the PM had previously sired at least five children. What difference would the sixth make, people asked. However, the question Peston posed is valid.
It was 10 days before Johnson was admitted to hospital after contracting coronavirus in late March. The prime minister, who had been showing symptoms including a high fever, was still taking part in meetings while self-isolating in Downing Street. Cabinet ministers, said to be concerned about his condition, emphasised the need for rest. The Tory leader, ever undeterred by illness, wanted to be at the wheel.
Moved by the generosity of the British people, Johnson’s tone was already starting to shift. With more than 20,000 former NHS staff returning to help fight the virus, the prime minister declared in a video on 29 March: “One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.”
At 8pm on Thursday 2 April, he clapped outside No 10 for NHS staff and care workers. Three days later, he was taken to St Thomas’s hospital. There, his condition worsened. He was moved to intensive care, where he was given “litres and litres of oxygen” to help keep him alive. “It was a tough old moment, I won’t deny it,” he later told The Sun on Sunday. “I was not in particularly brilliant shape and I was aware there were contingency plans in place. The doctors had all sorts of arrangements for what to do if things went badly wrong.”
We have seen a changed Boris, we haven’t got quite the same prime minister that we initially elected
Leaving hospital, Johnson heaped praise on the NHS for saving his life. He singled out two nurses, Jenny McGee from New Zealand and Luis Pitarma from Portugal, who cared for him during his stay. “It’s hard to find words to express my debt,” he said.
“The first broadcast he did after he nearly died was giving his thanks to the NHS,” says Andrew Gimson, author of ‘Boris: the making of a prime minister’. “He was able to make a more heartfelt declaration of love for the NHS than any previous Conservative leader has ever been able to do.”
“It’s definitely made him more thoughtful,” says Victoria Borwick, adding: “We have seen a changed Boris, we haven’t got quite the same prime minister that we initially elected, but maybe that’s for the good in a sense. He will certainly have a more generous feeling towards the NHS.”
When it came to naming their son, Wilfred, less than three weeks after Johnson left hospital, he and Symonds chose Nicholas as one of the middle names. This was in homage to the two doctors, Dr Nick Price and Dr Nick Hart, who helped save Johnson’s life.
“It seems to me his demeanour has changed,” says Gimson. “To begin with, you saw he was struggling to adopt a serious or consistently serious tone about this very grave event. I think he has now worked out how to do that.”
Steve Baker says: “One of the good things that has come out of this that I am very, very pleased about, is people have seen Boris’s earnest side, not least – perhaps most especially – after he was ill.”
The prime minister, who attributes his stay in hospital in part to his weight, has since vowed to lead a public health drive centred on getting more people walking and cycling. No10 deny reports that Johnson is considering increasing the sugar tax, though there is currently no suggestion the levy will be abolished.
There is a very real fear that what we will achieve is going to be worse than what we’ve avoided
Since re-entering No 10, Johnson has warned against a “second spike” of infections as a result of lifting the lockdown too early. “I’m sorry I’ve been away from my desk for much longer than I would have liked,” he said in a statement on Downing St. “We are now beginning to turn the tide… this is the moment of opportunity. It is also the moment of maximum risk.”
A Tory backbencher argues: “They put in place this very tight set of restrictions based on the modelling by Imperial College London. Whether his illness has made him more reluctant to unwind it rapidly is another question.”
A number of Conservative MPs and commentators have begun to warn that the economic and health impacts from lockdown – relating to mental health and access to care for non-Covid patients – could lead to a more adverse situation than is currently being protected against. “There is a very real fear that what we will achieve is going to be worse than what we’ve avoided,” says one Tory backbencher. Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chair of the 1922 committee, has warned of the “bleak” future now faced by businesses. “We need to have a frank, open and honest debate about the ethics of trading lives tomorrow to save lives today,” he told the Commons earlier this month.
Steve Baker, who supported the lockdown as a “pragmatist”, is one of those who believes more is now at risk. “In the short run, they were absolutely necessary expedients to save life. But now that we’ve learned more about the virus… I think we have to reflect very carefully on the balance of costs and risks across the social, the civil liberties, the economic and indeed the non-Covid health,” he argues.
The elasticity of Boris Johnson’s views has often been the subject of criticism. Famously, he wrote two articles coming out for both sides of the EU referendum question. But others see this flexibility as a positive.
“One of the strengths of his leadership is that he is capable of changing his mind,” says Andrew Gimson. “He did that as a journalist, he was very, very quick to see when the story had changed. When the story was suddenly in the Balkans, he got on the next train to Belgrave, rather than hanging around in Brussels.”
Johnson’s malleability is said to be derived from the experience of his great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, a Turkish polemicist and politician who lived during the dying years of the Ottaman empire. In his writings, Kemal aligned himself against the Turkish National Movement that emerged under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. While serving as interior minister in 1919, Kemal instructed government outposts not to provide Atatürk with supplies or support.
When Atatürk won power a few years later, Kemal, denounced as a traitor, was kidnapped and murdered by a mob. In her biography, Sonia Purnell claims this was a “powerful lesson” for Johnson “as to the dangers of full-fronted confrontation and inflexible principles”. “From family history, he knows how ‘sticking to your guns’ can lead to disaster,” wrote Purnell.
Gimson argues: “The ability to change his mind makes him in some ways quite a suitable leader for the present crisis, which is full of uncertainties, where you can’t just reach some orthodoxy and stick to it.”
Boris is – in so many ways – still a journalist: impatient, inquisitive, sceptical, constantly asking ‘why do we have to do it this way?
Those who have worked with Johnson also acknowledge his abilities at putting together a team and delegating tasks. Gimson says: “He is not shy of having brains in his ranks.” He adds: “The best position for him in any team is captain. He is not good at being a subordinate cog in someone else’s machine.” A senior figure at Vote Leave explains: “Boris is someone who responds to the people around him.”
Some have interpreted this trait, along with his penchant to challenge conventions, as a sign that Johnson is not across the detail. Guto Harri, who served as Johnson’s communications director from 2008-2012, argues this is a common mistake. “Boris is – in so many ways – still a journalist: impatient, inquisitive, sceptical, constantly asking ‘why do we have to do it this way?,” he explains. “A lot of people just accept what the bureaucrats tell them. Boris approaches government like a journalist, wondering if you really have got the best people in place with the best possible approach.”
He adds: “It’s not that he doesn’t get the detail; it’s that he doesn’t accept it.”
Victoria Borwick explains: “Boris believes in his team and in putting people in positions of control to deliver. But if they’re not delivering, the converse of that is, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ He would expect everyone to do even more than their best endeavours.” She adds: “He’s very objective-focussed in that sense.”
Johnson is not doctrinaire about how targets are met, says Harri. “Boris is a pragmatist above all else. There is no ‘we can’t use the private sector’ or ‘we have to use the private sector’ – he is not ideological either way. He would just say, ‘get more tests done’.”
For some, this focus was absent in the days when he was recovering from coronavirus. “When he was ill, that was the bit that was missing, the energy and the relentless scrutiny that comes from an individual who is impatient, sceptical, ambitious in terms of what he wants to achieve – in this case, to get us out of the crisis,” says Harri.
In the shape of senior advisors, such as Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, Johnson has kept abreast of expert guidance on how to manage the pandemic. At the daily press conferences, a senior politician is joined by external officials.
For his opponents, seeing Johnson – who they deem to be unserious – surrounded by experts, has provided some semblance of solace. For others, they fear Johnson has given too much stock to his advisors. “It was superficially attractive, the idea of doing everything flanked by the CMO and the CSO, because it makes it visually apparent that you are taking advice,” says one Tory MP. “But ultimately, politicians have to make the decisions, and that’s a judgment call.”
It is like watching two gladiators with completely different weapons
While seeking to strike a serious tone, periodically Johnson’s need to deliver good news has returned. During his first Prime Minister’s Questions against Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, he signalled that lockdown rules would partially be relaxed. Government sources then briefed newspapers of various measures being considered, leading to confusion, and a partial rowback by the time of the PM’s speech that Sunday when the R rate – the average number of people that one infected person passes on the disease to – began to rise.
“His whole style of leadership – how he persuades people and brings people with him – are all the things that just don’t work at the moment,” says a former Vote Leave ally. “The smile, the charm, the bonhomie, that doesn’t work right now. What people want is a boring Angela Merkel who can give them a ten-minute scientific analysis of what the ‘R’ figure means.”
In Starmer, Johnson faces a significant opponent. The former director of public prosecutions harnessed his not inconsiderable debating skills to the political arena during his time as shadow Brexit secretary. Their contrasting approaches, Starmer’s rooted in evidence, Johnson’s in rhetoric and style, make them intriguing adversaries.
“It is like watching two gladiators with completely different weapons,” says Gimson. “Starmer is very, very good at cross examination and seeing weaknesses in his opponent’s case. Johnson will try to make him seem just like a pettifogging character trying to distort the big picture. Sometimes, one will win and sometimes the other will.”
Rachel Reeves, the Labour frontbencher, says: “If you won [elections] on PMQs, you would have had some different prime ministers over the years. But it is really encouraging, especially a new leader being able to get the better of the argument against an experienced prime minister.”
Johnson was caught short at their most recent exchange, which centred on the Government’s preparedness for the outbreak of coronavirus in care homes across the country. An exchange of letters was sent after Johnson denied that the official advice until 12 March was that it remained “very likely” that people receiving care in a care home would become infected.
A senior figure at Vote Leave argues Johnson is “conscious of his weaknesses” and will make the necessary adjustments. Johnson, they claim, was initially jovial about the TV debates during the EU referendum, until the time came to “really knuckle down”. “He worked really hard and really got his teeth into it.”
“The Starmer approach is actually going to help Boris because Boris always takes that little bit longer before he takes something seriously,” says the source. “After having had another outing where he gets his facts wrong, I think it will make him hone his responses.”
Much has been made of Boris Johnson’s interest in Sir Winston Churchill. Indeed, he wrote a biography of the former prime minister (and fellow ex-journalist). Some believe The Churchill factor: how one man made history was an exercise in seeking to draw parallels with the former Conservative leader, who marshalled the UK through the second world war.
If Johnson does seek to emulate Churchill, the pandemic presents an opportunity of sorts. “Johnson does measure himself against the illustrious dead; he doesn’t just measure himself against the present day. So, he will be thinking in those sorts of terms,” says Andrew Gimson, one of his biographers.
But Johnson will be cognisant of the great risks involved with making the wrong call. Trigger an uptick in cases – the so-called second spike – and the consequences could be even more far reaching. Leave it too long and there may not be much of an economy left to rebuild. No amount of soaring rhetoric could compensate for such permutations.
What is clear to many who contributed to this article is that there has been a sea-change in how Johnson is approaching the pandemic as a result of his own experiences. “It has changed him, it’s certainly changed the way people look at him,” says Gimson. “He is now a much more substantial figure. He does make errors of taste… but his ability to connect with the wider nation is one of his enormous strengths. Very few other people in politics have that.”
Though some welcome this shift, many of his supporters want to eventually see a return to the pre-Covid leader, in order to get the country through the hardship that will follow. “People are really scared, and once that’s gone, we’re going to need all of Boris’s get up and go,” says Victoria Borwick.
“He tells the story of when he first arrived at City Hall and looked out the window, there were one or two cranes working. By the time he left City Hall, more cranes than he could count were building and developing things in London.
“We need that same encouragement for people to invest and do business and do well, otherwise, getting out of this crisis is going to be dire.”