It’s difficult to plot Boris Johnson’s trajectory from now on. After a week dicing with death, as he likes to put it: ‘it could have gone either way’ – I’m sorry to introduce a note of doubt there, but we all know what a congenital liar he is – he’s out of hospital and resting at Chequers, with the good wishes of his grateful people – well, the Daily Telegraph, at any rate – ringing in his ears. (Here’s the Telegraph at its most fawning, just a few days ago: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/04/10/boris-near-deathsent-shiver-nations-spine/).
His ‘brave’ battle with the grim reaper – leaping into the front line with nary a thought for himself – might be bankable. Forget that it was basically his own fault that he caught the virus: contravening his own advice about keeping his distance from people by shaking hands with patients he claimed were corona sufferers, and then boasting about it. Images of the weeping bearer-to-be of his love-child could garner him some sympathy. Admirers have been emphasising how hard he has been working on all our behalfs since becoming prime minister, burning the candle at both ends, without a holiday even. (What about that long New Year’s break on Mustique?) His recent experience apparently shows how ‘tough’ he is, which is what we want in a ‘leader’, isn’t it? – as well as demonstrating to the nation at large how serious this virus is: ‘for the first time’, claims his silly father. In fact most of us didn’t need a family member to be stricken in order to realise the gravity of the situation.
It’s hard to see what practical advantage this will give him in the Brexit negotiations when (if?) they come; but it may deflect some of the criticism that is bound to be directed at him when (if?) the virus passes, and we need to take a reckoning of everything that went wrong: from the crucial delays in ‘testing’, and the shortage of medical equipment, back to the way his Conservatives had so gravely and deliberately weakened the NHS and the social services over the past ten years. On his ‘release’ Boris paid fulsome praise to the NHS that had looked after him, as has just about every Tory spokesperson over the past few weeks: right against the grain, one suspects, for those ideological privatisers. (It sounds forced.) That is almost bound to accrue to the benefit of the Health Service in the future. Johnson also singled out for praise the two nurses who had tended him in ICU, one from New Zealand, the other from Portugal. Did he realise that these are exactly the kinds of ‘immigrants’ that are going to find it harder to come to Britain under legislation his government plans to introduce soon? (They would fall short of the personal income barrier that will be imposed.) The NHS, of course, is heavily dependent on foreigners to be able to function. All the doctors and nurses who have died of Coronavirus in the last couple of weeks are from abroad – most of them with brown skins. Their faces are plastered over all the papers – except the Telegraph, perhaps. (It’s a shame that one of Boris’s nurses wasn’t a ‘picanniny with a water-melon smile’; or a ‘pillar box’, to use two of his choicest slurs for brown-skinned people.) Will the Conservative government, and the awful Priti Patel in particular, take a lesson from that, too? In that case both the NHS and multiculturalism could benefit from the present crisis, and in particular from Boris’s brief flirtation (if true) with Death.
I wouldn’t be surprised. Johnson is at bottom an empiricist, or a ‘chancer’, if you prefer, just as his hero Churchill was. Churchill, remember, revised his opinion of workers and their trade unions when he saw how much they – and Ernie Bevin in particular – loyally contributed to the War. As peacetime prime minister he did nothing therefore to reverse the social revolution that Attlee’s government brought about, like – for example – dismantling the NHS and the Welfare State. It’s clear – isn’t it? – that after the present sort-of-War, neither Britain nor, probably, the world is going to be able to return to the status quo ante – ‘normality’ as it has been understood over the last few decades – without huge changes; some of them presaged, of course, by Attlee’s spiritual successor, Jeremy Corbyn. Boris’s ideological – and indeed intellectual – emptiness may enable him, after a crisis comparable in some ways to World War II, to embrace some of those changes, in the pursuit of a new ‘social conservatism’. If Churchill could do it, and after him Macmillan, then Churchill’s pasteboard successor should be able to as well. (On the other hand, Churchill had just won a war. We still need to see whether Boris can win this sort-of-one.) The change will start with a full embrace of the NHS.
Of course there are alternative scenarios. Let’s hope that a new cuddly Fascism – the trend that looked possible before this bug hit us – isn’t one of them. It’s all up for grabs. And of course we could have both Fascism and the NHS. Isn’t that what ‘National Socialism’ was?