Marr’s second charge against Johnson is essentially unchanged from years past: Tory members of Parliament have had enough of him, and his buffoonery is no longer working. Boil it down and the accusation is that he’s still trying to have his cake and eat it too; he still wants to be popular with the country—comical, bumbling, free—but also wants the country to do what he says so that it can get past the pandemic and he can bring back his “élan.” In other words, his central problem as prime minister is the central problem of his character, his belief that he is the juggler who can have it all.
Again, this risks underestimating Johnson’s appeal. He believes he can have it all in large part because he always has; he believes he can win without compromising his essential character, because that’s what has always happened; and he believes the Tories will continue to bend to him, because that’s always been the way. His other great lesson is that he will eventually be forgiven, because he always has been. Johnson has made mistake after mistake throughout his life, but none has stopped his rise. Those who know him well whom I spoke with for this piece say this is because he has an extraordinary ability to be given extra leeway, because Boris is Boris. It’s back to the usual laws of gravity not applying.
At one moment in the early 2000s, when Johnson’s private life was in particular turmoil, a friend—the journalist Sarah Sands—sent him a poem, “The Mistake,” detailing the consequence of choices gone wrong. “Each mistake leads back to something worse,” the poem laments, until all that's left is dismay.
And this dismay at this, this big mistake
Is made worse by the sight of all those who
Knew all along where these mistakes would lead—
Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.
The poem was meant as a friendly warning, Sands told Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson. She had always tried to save Johnson from himself. “My message to him was that he was risking what was important by not choosing.”
In his Marr interview over the weekend, Johnson was again refusing to choose, this time between the economic catastrophe of another coronavirus lockdown and the public-health catastrophe of a second wave. “I think the best thing we can do now for all those who have suffered in the course of this pandemic is to bring it to an end in the speediest possible way, whilst trying to keep our society going,” he said. “And what we want people to do is to behave fearlessly, but with common sense. Fearlessly, but with common sense.” Johnson was juggling, refusing to accept that the country could not have both in moderation.
Gimson has written that Johnson’s instinctive belief in his ability to defy the usual norms invites vitriol from his critics because it is “an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted.” This doesn’t mean Johnson’s critics are wrong to hate him or to conclude that he is an irretrievably unsuitable man to run the country in a pandemic, or any other time. Nor, in fact, does it mean Johnson’s critics are wrong to say the prime minister will eventually drop the ball and be blamed for it by the country at large. There will come a time when the predictions of Johnson’s demise will come true—because all political careers end in failure.
The point though, as Gimson writes, is that in their anger, Johnson’s critics consistently underestimate one of the reasons for his appeal—that he is different: “By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, [Johnson] implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris.”