Boris Johnson is back and, with a characteristic lightness rivalled only by the LZ 129 Hindenburg, instantly the nation levitates back up to its preferred realm of complete fantasy.
The usual suspects have been doing their bit to maintain the chimera in his absence. The microbe-sized dot on the front page of The Sun, that if you squinted hard enough you could see, read: “596 dead, see p4”. It was an instant collector’s item.
If the country should recover from its self-inflicted Stockholm syndrome to realise it has become the backroom of an Oxfordshire pub that is being smashed up for fun, we can only hope said Sun front page will be sold as fridge magnets in the national museum about how it all went so horrifically wrong.
When Johnson went into hospital three weeks ago, there had been 5,000 fatalities from coronavirus. There have now been 20,000, at least, and countless more in care homes. (Countless not in the sense that they cannot be counted, just that no one has bothered to.)
Still, wheel out the lectern, clear the throat, steady the gaze, open the gob and force out the following:
“I know that there will be many people looking now at our apparent success, and beginning to wonder whether now is the time to go easy on those social-distancing measures.”
Excuse me, prime minister? “Apparent success”? Who is looking at your apparent success exactly?
There are 20,000 dead, and there is absolutely no disputing whatsoever the certain fact that Johnson and Donald Trump stand alone on the world stage in their crushing failure to manage the response to coronavirus. The UK’s death toll will surely surpass Italy’s, after we were offered long weeks in which to learn other country’s lessons and chose not to. Instead, the prime minister went on TV to brag about shaking hands with coronavirus patients, then went to a Six Nations rugby match at Twickenham, weeks after Italy started cancelling its matches in the competition.
It is pointless even to ask the counterfactual question, “What if Jeremy Corbyn had won the election?” The chances of that happening were about as likely as the current Premier League season being completed on the moon, which is made of cheese, and Leicester City winning it with Elvis Presley as captain.
But had he done so, it is close to impossible to see how the coronavirus crisis could have played out any worse, but more importantly, in such circumstances, it would at least have been relentlessly, mercilessly clear to the British people how catastrophically they had been failed.
If Corbyn had, say, stood outside 10 Downing Street and said such words as, “I won’t risk the second wave, the huge loss of life,” it is almost terrifying to imagine the reaction. The deafening shrieks that would have pointed out that, well, you were very happy to risk the first one, weren’t you, and there’s 20,000 dead.
It is barely a few weeks ago that Johnson was saying such things as, “I have to level with the British people, many of you are going to lose loved ones before their time,” as a way of explaining the “herd immunity” strategy that we all are now bizarrely compelled to pretend never happened.
But as we would learn from Boris Johnson, if the coronavirus were a mugger, “now is the time the British people have wrestled it to the ground, and this is the moment to press home our advantage”.
When it comes to muggers, no one talks a good game quite like the Tory party. It is hard not to recall that time when most of the cabinet thought for at least a second that Theresa May might have been in grave danger at the hands of what turned out to be a prankster handing her a P45.
“He’s lucky I didn’t hit him,” David Davis said afterwards. “He’d have been down for a very long time.”
Unfortunately, the pictures, which were not so much CCTV as full HD and broadcast live on television, show the lucky assailant standing, unchallenged, around half a yard from where David Davis is sitting, arms folded, for almost half a minute in which Davis does precisely nothing.
Still, now is the moment to press home our advantage, apparently. Who knows? Maybe it is.
It’s just that, well, if coronavirus is the mugger and the UK is the victim, one struggles with the metaphors. But, as it happens, a long time ago, while backpacking in Bolivia, I once met a man, let’s call him Boris, who was kidnapped by a taxi driver and was kept in a house for 10 days.
Each morning, Boris would be driven to a cashpoint to withdraw his daily maximum until all his accounts were emptied. By day three, Boris was patiently making the point that it would be much easier for everyone if the taxi driver just let him log on to his online banking and transfer it all at once.
On that occasion, to be fair, there was a gun involved. Our prime minister is more the school kid who’s been mugged of his wallet outside the station and, now that the tears have subsided, claims he’s going to “go and find them”.
What he’s going to do when he does find them is not immediately clear, but it will probably involve handing over his trainers as well.
As the World Health Organisation and almost every single recognised pandemic expert made abundantly clear long weeks ago, the way to deal with coronavirus is to act fast, move fast and keep away from it.
Johnson is right in one sense. It is a mugger. The countries who have dealt with it are the ones who saw it coming and crossed the road, instead of bounding up to it and grabbing it by the hand.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies