Boris Johnson Can Remake Britain Like Few Before Him

The British prime minister, released from the hospital today, needs to show he’s more than just a feel-good story.

Boris Johnson walks through the door at Number 10 Downing Street.
Peter Nicholls / Reuters

Just as Britain braced for the most crucial weeks of this great struggle, its commander was taken from the field. Boris Johnson, relentless climber of life’s knotty ladder, had been dragged from the top at the very moment it mattered most, like in a Greek tragedy, and somehow fitting for this strangely antiquated figure. For a moment, there was serious concern that the country was about to lose its most consequential prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, the man who had remade the country in his image, first by convincing it to vote for Brexit and then by ensuring it was not lost in the wreckage of his predecessor’s failing government.

The real story proved more prosaic. Protected by modern medicine, Johnson was able to recuperate from COVID-19, eventually moved out of the intensive-care unit, and was today released from the hospital a week after he was admitted. Still, this story—one not tied to some kind of fated tragedy or test of personal virility—is revealing.

Johnson’s illness touched on something unique about him and his hold on Britain that, for good or bad, has come to define both. In falling ill, Johnson came to embody the national struggle against the coronavirus, just as he had come to represent Brexit in 2016, and, before that, as London’s mayor, the 2012 Olympic Games. In his recovery there is something symbolic too—even as Britain grapples with hundreds of deaths a day from COVID-19 to rank among the worst-hit countries anywhere in the world, his tale offers some hope and optimism.

Johnson rejoins a government that made little sense without him—it was and is his. Not even Tony Blair, forced to cohabit with Gordon Brown, was quite as dominant. Johnson’s government is a court, in which he is the king. Its revolutionary nature, taking Britain out of the EU, has already remade Britain. Now, though, he is able to return to the fray with the unique power to change the country all over again—and with it, his own legacy. Johnson has been given a second act, even before the first one was complete.

Brexit requires refashioning Britain’s relationship with Europe. But the extraordinary nature of the coronavirus crisis, its reach into every aspect of life, means that the country’s economy, state apparatus, and social mores need rebuilding as well. Johnson gets to lead this reconstruction.

Public sympathy and support for Johnson will, of course, wilt as he returns to work and begins to make the difficult decisions necessary to contain this crisis, get the economy back on track, negotiate Britain’s future relationship with the EU, and balance the books. The inevitable public inquiry into the current crisis, and Johnson’s handling of it, is unlikely to spare him and his advisers criticism. Britain’s performance to date looks to be somewhere between average and distinctly unimpressive, if not far worse. Yet, perhaps aided by his illness—though evident before that—Johnson has maintained the strong support of the public. At heart, he is not generally seen as a malevolent figure, but rather as a far-too-human actor, unable to take necessary steps quickly enough because he is not serious enough. In truth, Johnson’s political weaponry—his optimism and energy—proved ill-suited to the opening stages of the coronavirus challenge.

For the post-pandemic rebuild, however, that weaponry may prove far more effective, as Britain requires reenergizing. For all the war rhetoric and metaphors, Johnson is a peacetime leader. His success has been built on risk-taking, impulse, and making people feel better. These traits will come in handy. He will, of course, also need a plan, a vision of Johnsonism to show that he offers more than feel-good Berlusconismo. He needs to develop an idea of what the country will look like in 2024, the year of the next British general election.

In her address to the nation earlier this month, the Queen noted that while the national lockdown might be hard, it provided “an opportunity to slow down, pause, and reflect.” Reflecting on Johnson’s legacy, it is clear that, had he succumbed to the coronavirus, he would already have ranked among the most consequential politicians in postwar Britain. Brexit alone meant Johnson achieved more of lasting consequence than any leader other than Clement Attlee, who introduced the social-democratic postwar order, and Thatcher, who tore it down.

Johnson helped set the tone of British euroskepticism as a journalist, gave it moderate respectability as a politician, and then played an instrumental role, if not the instrumental role, in its eventual triumph. He has come to dominate our national life here in Britain. He is loved and loathed, a source of fun and fury, but he is everywhere, and always Boris, the clown who cannot be contained or stopped, whose rise to the pinnacle of British life was somehow inevitable.

It is perhaps for these reasons that the news of Johnson’s sudden deterioration came as such a jolt to so many, unnerving even those implacably opposed to him. The feeling seemed to be: If COVID-19 can lay Johnson low, what about me? I received messages from old friends I’d assumed to be hostile asking about his condition. Johnson’s lightness, his positivity, seemed to be missing. Maybe his relentlessly positive outlook contributed to the scale of the crisis, perhaps not, but there was a feeling that at least he offered some kind of hope.

The response to his hospitalization pointed to his national appeal. Does he allow people to pretend everything will be okay? To take the risks they want, to behave irresponsibly or irrationally? Robbed of the reassurance he offered, did the country panic just a little bit? With Brexit, he rejected the “doomsters and the gloomsters” and convinced people—once during the referendum, and again in December’s general election—to take a leap into the unknown. This time, his tentative leadership and reluctance to impose tougher restrictions look to have made the crisis worse, but his poll ratings nevertheless jumped.

What has always been so curious in writing about Johnson is the sense of destiny that has attached itself to him through his life. From the moment I can remember Johnson bursting into the public consciousness on Have I Got News for You, Britain’s biggest TV political-satire show, his future rise was a matter of national discussion. That he would one day become prime minister was commonly accepted. Yet there was always a darker side to the speculation—that upon reaching the top, he would either burn bright or explode in public view, perhaps both. Even his family and friends were concerned that his premiership would be a disaster.

Most of those I spoke with before he became prime minister thought Brexit would be this disaster, yet his term has been marked by extraordinary success, politically at least. This was a man who constantly flirted with danger, who indeed appeared to be drawn to it, but who—until the coronavirus crisis—was barely touched by it.

The pandemic may yet prove to be this calamity. Perhaps history or the electorate will judge him for not taking it seriously enough, for acting too slowly or too reluctantly. At first, there had been a glint in his eye, a smirking irony in his repetition of the government’s hand-washing message. Then when the news emerged that he’d contracted the virus, it seemed little more than an inconvenience with a whiff of farce thrown in, even as most of the country were experiencing the national lockdown. How had the prime minister, his chief medical officer, and his health secretary allowed themselves to be infected at the same time? Was it indicative of his lack of seriousness—and the country’s? There was even comedy about this moment too, reflected in the memes and jokes circulating on the nation’s phones. His sudden deterioration came just as things in the country at large were getting worse. Johnson had not been laid low saving the day like Horatio Nelson, leading Britain through its modern-day Battle of Trafalgar. Instead, he appeared to be living the crisis itself.

In a profile of Johnson I wrote last year to mark the culmination of his life’s ambition, to become Conservative Party leader and prime minister, I explored the perception of destiny that has clung to him, the source of his burning ambition, and the risk of self-destruction many of those around him have always perceived. The profile closed with the obituary written by the Roman poet Ovid of Phaeton, the tragic child of the sun: “Here Phaeton lies; he who sought to drive the chariot of his father, the sun; if he did not succeed at least he died daring great things.” This was Johnson’s mission—to do things, even at great risk. He now has his chance all over again.