STEPHEN ROBINSON: Agonised. Sombre. All bluster gone. But could this be the moment Boris Jonhson’s fightback began?
It is a rare day indeed when a single news photograph of a man in a suit appearing via video link at a government press conference can bring a nation up short.
But the front pages of Wednesday’s newspapers showing Boris Johnson in a state of manifest agony and contrition was genuinely shocking.
He was doing something that no British Prime Minister has ever had to do before. He was taking responsibility for policies that contributed to the deaths of 100,000 people.
Those who hate him and all he stands for will feel vindicated. Johnson, they are already saying, has been found out, a man palpably in over his head from the start.
Here’s the final evidence we need that he is the shallow charlatan who dithered as Covid waves crashed over the nation, landing us with the worst death toll in Europe.
They will regard it as a fitting comeuppance for someone who famously dreamed as a child of growing up to be ‘World King’. They will not take into account that very early into his premiership he was confronted with a crisis no prime minister has had to face, one that is almost beyond imagination in its human and economic devastation.
Other people will have been shocked by the way he has aged in the 14 months since he led the Conservative Party to a landslide general election victory. His face is more lined today, and is his hair not whiter, and thinner?
Stephen Robinson ponders whether Boris Johnson’s (pictured) genuinely shocking display of manifest agony and contrition at a press conference on Tuesday might mark a turning point for the prime minister
But it is the downbeat demeanour, the throwing himself at the public’s mercy with a joke-free statement of apology, which in a way was the most shocking. It was the day the bluster had to stop.
This was not a mea culpa couched in the fashionable equivocation of today. There was no infuriating ‘I apologise for the perception that we were slow to act’; or the equally grating obfuscation that ‘mistakes might have been made’, with the implication they were actually made by subordinates.
No, he took it on the chin. ‘I am deeply sorry for every life lost,’ he said. ‘And of course, as Prime Minister, I take full responsibility for everything the Government has done.’
It was clear that he meant it because he carried the weight of that responsibility so obviously on his hunched shoulders.
Though it was a sobering, even disturbing spectacle, he struck the right tone. As the politician who is rarely lost for words conceded, he had ‘exhausted the thesaurus of misery’. Better to be straightforward.
I confess that if someone had told me a year ago that the Daily Mail would one day carry a picture of a stricken Boris Johnson with the headline ‘I Am Deeply Sorry’, I would have wagered that he had been caught in flagrante in the Cabinet Room with a Downing Street secretary.
It is a rare day indeed when a single news photograph of a man in a suit appearing via video link at a government press conference can bring a nation up short. But the front pages of yesterday’s newspapers showing Boris Johnson in a state of manifest agony and contrition was genuinely shocking
The image also reminded me faintly of President Bill Clinton’s defiant levelling with the American people — ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky.’
But while Boris Johnson’s contrition was — I believe — genuine, Clinton’s facial agony was of course wholly bogus, as it turned out he was lying through his teeth.
This seemingly besieged Prime Minister is unrecognisable from the bubbly, puckish figure I got to know when we were colleagues on another newspaper.
That Boris was a strident libertarian, an exponent of Merrie England, and of leaving people to their own devices.
Ironically, given that Covid has dominated his life in the past 12 months and that he nearly died of it, he was then a man who did not really believe in illness.
Sick days were for wimps; nanny-state health and safety measures were nonsense on stilts.
He would have been truly horrified at the idea of having to announce — as he did yesterday — the incarceration of travellers arriving at British airports.
Boris Johnson’s life has been one long internal battle between his cleverness and originality of thought on the one hand, and his selfishness and intermittent idleness on the other.
In his briefing on Tuesday, Johnson was doing something that no British Prime Minister has ever had to do before. He was taking responsibility for policies that contributed to the deaths of 100,000 people
We saw the ‘good Boris’ in his triumphant election campaign, and in his courageous delivery of an (admittedly imperfect) Brexit trade deal against all the odds.
We have seen the ‘bad Boris’ in recent months in his maddening inability to make a decision until everyone agrees it is too late.
For a man once so intellectually self-confident, he too often has seemed to bend policy according to which expert or lobbyist he last spoke to.
His occasional sloppiness in use of language, combined with a lack of preparation for press conferences on complex scientific matters, has been bewildering.
Prime ministers over the centuries have had to account for disasters which have killed thousands of people. But crucially, these have been men in uniform, fighting abroad, and in times of a much more deferential media.
Herbert Asquith was eventually ground down by the misconduct of the Great War and had to be replaced by David Lloyd George.
Anthony Eden lost his health and his premiership because of the Suez debacle of 1956. But these political upheavals stemmed from military mistakes, thousands of miles away from home.
It wasn’t until the Blitz that civilians were killed in their thousands in British cities. The key difference is that then, as now, death was going on all around us.
It is sobering to think that over 50 per cent more people have already died with Covid in this country compared to the 70,000 British civilians killed during six years of total war.
Boris Johnson will know these figures, and their significance. He modelled his career so closely on Churchill’s that he wrote his biography.
Churchill’s early political career had more than its share of setbacks, notably the Dardanelles disaster of 1915 which forced his removal from the Admiralty.
‘I am the victim of political intrigue. I am finished!’ Churchill wailed to a sympathetic newspaper proprietor in a rare moment of self-doubt.
His ally, Sir George Riddell, tried to console him: ‘Not finished at 40, with your remarkable powers.’
Yet Churchill was so stung by the humiliation that he took himself off to the Western Front to lead an infantry battalion. It was to be another 25 years before events offered him the chance of full political redemption.
Boris Johnson is also at a pivotal moment in his political life.
Unlike Churchill, he is not seeking to blame others for his problems and our shocking Covid death toll.
Johnson’s political fate will now be determined by one factor, whether he can maintain the momentum of the vaccination programme. Pictured: The Daily Mail front page 27/01/21
His political fate will now be determined by one factor, whether he can maintain the momentum of the vaccination programme.
It is not a fluke that we are greatly outpacing EU countries in giving vaccines. The Government made the right call in staying out of the EU centralised procurement regime, and by ordering vast quantities early.
It now seems the obvious decision to have taken, but at the time it was brave and bold.
If the Prime Minister takes full responsibility for the failures of the past 12 months, he must be given his share of credit for an obvious success.
As an Oxford classicist, he will be familiar with the importance of catharsis.
By speaking so bluntly of his regret and responsibility for such a shocking level of national suffering, he is purging himself, while girding for the battle ahead.
The Prime Minister need not go to Churchillian extremes in seeking absolution by fighting in the trenches.
His battle is closer to home and will be fought with needles, not bayonets. It would be foolish to write him off, as many have done in the past.
Boris Johnson’s public agony this week might yet prove to be the trigger for his fightback.
Indeed, it could be the moment a new disciplined and purposeful variant of Boris Johnson emerges — a man fitting and ready for the solemn times we face as our national recovery begins.
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