For Johnson’s personal health crisis to affect his own instinctive optimism would be for him to question one of the fundamental facets of who he is and how he sees the world. For him to reject it, to suddenly transform into an Angela Merkel–style realist, would be to take away a part of what makes him both a formidable politician and a flawed one.
To many on the political left, belief in character and self-determination are ways of justifying privilege, and the articles of conservative faith—self-reliance, thrift, sacrifice and hard work—mere fig leaves to cover entrenched inequality. Yet those principles were at the core of the Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras, defined by each leader’s refusal to accept what they saw as the rot of declinism that had spread through their respective countries’ political establishments. Both believed that changing course required optimism, character, and determination, not mere tweaks to the system and technocratic assessments of what was possible. Belief itself was required. Whether people consider their achievements good or bad, few would now argue that their impact was anything other than transformative.
One of the realities of the past few weeks, however, is that optimism has zero medical ability to stop the spread of a pandemic. This has been a challenge for the head, not the heart. Countries led by strong characters—Johnson, Donald Trump in the U.S., Emmanuel Macron in France—have not performed any better, and in many cases performed starkly worse, than those led by realists like Merkel.
Read: The secret to Germany’s COVID-19 success: Angela Merkel is a scientist
But if it is going too far to say character is everything, it is surely also going too far to say character is nothing. Character matters, and politicians need more than just a grip on the figures to succeed. Frank Luntz, the American pollster who has known Johnson since their time as students at Oxford University, told me when I was researching a previous profile of the prime minister that he had never met anyone “so obviously talented yet so quickly dismissed by critics because he doesn't conform to their definitions or expectations.” Johnson’s skill, Luntz said, was to appeal to the heart, not the head. Andrew Gimson, one of Johnson’s biographers, told me that part of Johnson’s appeal lies in his ability to speak to people’s aspirations. “We all want, with at least part of our minds, to believe that the crisis can be surmounted,” he told me. “So Boris as leader is showing by his boosterism that he is intent on taking us where we actually want to go.”
The next phase of the crisis plays to some of Johnson’s strengths more obviously than the previous ones have, but also to some of his weaknesses. For example, Johnson has, Gimson told me, always preferred doing “a lot of things imperfectly than one thing perfectly,” choosing to press ahead on the basis of imperfect information rather than waiting until all the facts are clear. In the days and weeks ahead, this carries the risk of overreaching and overpromising—of moving too quickly based on information that confirms things he wants to be true, but might not be. Of course, this is also a reality of being in charge: As Henry Kissenger has observed, the skill of leadership is to make marginal decisions with imperfect information before others are comfortable doing so, taking a calculated gamble and being willing to stand alone first.
Today, the reality of the situation is that when Johnson was admitted to the hospital on April 5, the death toll in Britain was 4,934. Today, as he returns to work, after a week of emergency medical care and a fortnight of rest, the number of fatalities exceeds 20,000. His challenge is now to show that he can still shape the future—that optimism can inspire, character matters, and his is an asset, not a liability.