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LONDON — Boris Johnson’s belligerent optimism is perhaps his greatest political strength — but in a pandemic it has sometimes proved a disastrous weakness.
The U.K. prime minister has a fondness for identifying baddies standing in his way. He has railed at the “doomsters and gloomsters” whom he believed were obstructing Brexit. He often refers to the Labour Party as “sniping from the sidelines” or “taking pot-shots.” The journalists who wrote that he struggled to recover from his illness last year were guilty of producing “seditious propaganda.”
Coronavirus itself has been subject to the same harpooning. The disease has been an “invisible mugger,” “devilish” and Charybdis against the Scylla of further lockdowns — two mythical beasts which menaced Odysseus.
These flourishes serve not only to underline his unwavering commitment to military and classical metaphors, but to paint Johnson as the plucky man of the hour, impatient to escape and determined not to be kept down. A year of pandemic and lockdown though, has forced him to adapt to a foe that is immune to political name-calling and an up-beat disposition.
At first glance, the combination of a major public health crisis and leader instinctively inclined towards headstrong ebullience might seem like a toxic one — and at times it has been.
In the words of a former Downing Street aide, “Personality is always a part of politics and no leader can divorce themselves from who they are. There are times when your temperament probably suits the times. And there are times when it doesn’t quite so much.”
“He does try to offer that kind of optimistic vision because that is in his nature. There were certainly times when his approach — like the comment about ‘turning the tide in 12 weeks’ — was, with the benefit of hindsight, misconceived.”
Some would put it much more strongly than that. This was Johnson’s notorious comment on 19 March 2020, a few days before he imposed the U.K.’s first nationwide lockdown and the “stay at home” order. His own conflicting instincts seemed to be on show at that press conference.
He acknowledged “I cannot stand here and tell you that by the end of June that we will be on the downward slope” yet was unable to resist adding: “What I can say is that this is going to be finite.”
Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer, suggests this was exactly the worst kind of predicament the prime minister could be faced with: “He was very, very ill-prepared by temperament to deal with a health crisis because he never really believed in ill health. Someone who knows him very well said that she’d never put him in charge of hospitals because neither Boris nor his father believed in illness. He’d never say ‘you’re looking terrible, but you go home and lay down, take it easy.’”
A former cabinet colleague echoes this: “He would always tend to look on the bright side. I think probably it did take quite some time for the message even after his illness to sink in that it wasn’t going to go back to how things were and he was going to have to rein himself in and start to downplay expectations.”
The same ex-minister observes that Johnson is used to defying the odds through “sheer force of character,” as he had done in delivering a thumping majority at the 2019 election and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. “He has got results by standing firm, not heeding the voices saying you can’t do this, or you can’t do that.”
It took a while for him to come to terms with an obstacle of a different kind. The corollary of his extreme “can-do” attitude was that he was reluctant to accept that there were things his government would have to prevent people from doing for a long time.
This tendency to look for the silver lining or make the best of a bad job was a pattern in his public statements — all the more remarkable after his own spell in intensive care with the virus in April.
It was evident in his eagerness to talk about barbecues last May and getting back to the office in July, in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and his reluctance to impose a second national lockdown — even at the expense of annoying regions of the country which were subject to tougher rules.
He paraded his own impatience in a speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference last October, when he said: “I don’t know about you but I have had more than enough of this disease.”
The eventual acceptance of a second national lockdown, tighter restrictions on household mixing around Christmas and a hasty U-turn on schools reopening in January formed a series of setbacks and meant Johnson entered 2021 under a cloud.
Two Conservative colleagues, one a minister and one a senior backbencher who did not want to be named, expressed their frustration with him at this point in strikingly similar terms. Each accused him of being unable to act decisively, trying to please everyone, and leaving the country in limbo as a result.
But it eventually became a turning point, when he showed an apparent resolve to put the dither and dread of last year behind him. As Gimson puts it, the advent of the government’s road map — a phased program of reopening at five week intervals — represents a “conscious choice to under-promise and over-deliver.”
The change in tack came not long after the departure of Dominic Cummings, his divisive chief adviser, a move many Conservatives saw as the start of an effort to “professionalize” operations and engage in some basic expectation management.
The effort to regain authority on the coronavirus response has been given credibility by the vaccine rollout, one of the U.K.’s clear successes after many missteps. Polling last week by Ipsos MORI showed that for the first time since last April more Britons think things are heading in the right direction than the wrong direction.
Kelly Beaver, director of public affairs at Ipsos MORI, says: “The public are quite a hard marker on how lockdowns have been dealt with, but on the vaccine rollout, the public are very positive and this has been a good boost in confidence around the government’s handling generally. Even amongst Labour voters, approval ratings are not as high, but you do see they are giving the government their dues.”
Even so, overconfidence has crept in. Back in February, there were briefings for journalists that all U.K. adults could be offered their first jab by the start of May. Whether that was Johnsonian exuberance seeping through government ranks is hard to know, but in any case, vaccine supply problems and safety concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine in younger adults have nixed any hope of accelerating the rollout to that extent.
And the communications challenge is not over. As Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, put it when delivering revised advice on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine: “If you sail a massive liner across the Atlantic, then it’s not really reasonable that you aren’t going to have to make at least one course correction during that voyage.”
Outbreaks of the South African and Indian variants and knocks to the speed of the vaccine rollout are causing some jitters among health officials who have discussed the possibility of delaying the next phase of reopening under the road map. Johnson would face enormous pressure from his own party not to take that action, and the first real test of his promise to rely on “data, not dates” from hereon in.
This crisis has confirmed the impression that he is optimistic and buccaneering to a fault. But it has also revealed he is capable of sitting still and planning ahead. They may even be two sides of the same coin: the ability to keep buggering on, as the British saying goes.
How Johnson balances these two inclinations could end up determining how the pandemic is remembered, his fate at the next election, and the country’s health.