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With his sudden U-turn over Christmas, Boris Johnson caps a year of debacles

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20.12.2020

At Christmastime last year, the only cloud on Boris Johnson’s horizon was how he was going to pay for a winter break with Carrie on Mustique. The answer, rather typically, was that someone else would pick up the tab. The opposition later raised a complaint, but few Tories begrudged their leader his getaway in the Caribbean. He had just delivered a “stonking” election victory, their best since Margaret Thatcher was at her zenith. He was, in the words of one senior Tory, “lord of all he surveys”. Celebratory Christmas receptions at Number 10 were pungent with the scent of hubris.

Being a student of the classics, the prime minister should have known that the gods will punish arrogance. Nemesis came in the shape of an invisible microbe. The pandemic has tested the mettle of leaders around the planet, but among the mature democracies few were as singularly ill-equipped to handle a crisis of this nature and magnitude as Britain’s prime minister. He has looked good only when benchmarked against Donald Trump.

The coronavirus crisis could not have been more cunningly engineered to expose Mr Johnson’s flaws. He was made prime minister not because anyone thought that he was a cool and decisive head with the leadership skills and moral seriousness required to handle the gravest public health emergency in a century. He was put there because he was a successful representative of the entertainer branch of populist leadership that prospered in the pre-virus era. “We elected him to be a ‘good times’ prime minister,” comments one senior Tory. “His curse is to be prime minister in bad times.”

Few of his strengths as a politician have been of much utility in this emergency. All of his weaknesses have been searingly exposed. A man who spent his career ducking responsibility was suddenly confronted with a challenge that could not be run from, though that didn’t stop him vanishing at the outset when he went missing from critical meetings. In the coronavirus, he met an opponent impervious to glib slogans and empty promises. Here was a disease posing hideous and inescapable dilemmas that confounded the “have your cake and eat it” philosophy by which he had lived his life.

Not that he didn’t try to do that anyway. At the time of the first national lockdown, when one of many “lives versus livelihoods” arguments was boiling within government,........

© The Guardian


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