At least Boris Johnson is a laugh – pragmatism would’ve been so boring during this pandemic

Each evening, he comes on television and says a random series of words, giving us the fun of putting them in the right order so we know what we’re supposed to do

Mark Steel
Thursday 26 March 2020 18:05
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Boris Johnson says he will see his mother for Mother's Day

We’ve learned some important lessons about ourselves over these last few weeks. One is that if it was announced there was a pride of hungry lions eating everyone in the town centre, some people would say “I’m going down there anyway. Tuesday’s my day for meeting Terry for a pint, no one’s telling me I can’t live my normal life. Anyway if I stay home, the lions have won.”

So last weekend, there were still crowds in every town, because ignoring warnings that you’re causing unnecessary death is the Blitz Spirit, apparently. This would be true if, during the Blitz, instead of blacking out cities and hiding in shelters, we turned on all our lights, set off fireworks and stood underneath the Luftwaffe singing, “I’m not worried, a doodlebug landing on you is just like getting the flu.”

But maybe it’s right not to follow the guidelines. Because if coronavirus was really serious, like the importance of voting the right way at the general election, there would be a proper effort to get a message across.

At the election, Boris Johnson’s party spent millions of pounds every day on billboards, adverts in newspapers, Facebook and things that popped up on your phone, because it was vital we understood that if we didn’t elect him, we might end up with a leader who wasn’t equipped to run the country during a tricky period.

But for this situation, the main public information has been A4 leaflets in shop windows asking you to wash your hands.

Maybe the advertising companies have decided that’s the most effective way of convincing people. So from now on, if they want to advertise a car, they’ll get shops to tape a leaflet on the door saying “Important information – the new Audi is comfortable”.

To be fair, the government does also have an expert communicator in prime minister Johnson. He’s been impressively clear in his messaging, such as when he said he would absolutely definitely visit his mother on Mother’s Day. He was then equally clear four days later when he said he definitely wouldn’t see his mother on Mother’s Day.

He was clear it was safe to shake hands, and then clear that you must on no account shake hands. He was clear we could confront the disease by all catching it, and developing herd immunity, and now he’s clear we must definitely not catch it.

He announced we would soon be testing 250,000 people a day, until Chris Whitty corrected him slightly, saying the target was 25,000.

This is the sort of behaviour that makes him think he’s a modern Churchill. So often, Churchill would say to a general “Ah, have you assembled 250,000 men? I meant 25,000. Can you ask 225,000 of them to stand at ease? Sorry.”

He won the election with a clear slogan “Get Brexit Done”, and his speeches now are equally to the point. Each evening, he comes on television and says a random series of words, giving us the fun of putting them in the right order so we know what we’re supposed to do.

I expect the scientists persuade him to take out the Latin bits he normally slips in, otherwise, he’d say “Good evening, in this annus pandemicus it is VITAL that ipso facto, modus vivendi, coitus interruptus we endeavour to stay in at ALL times when we are not outside, and alma mater ONLY go to work when we are workbound, carpe diem, as it were.”

When he announced the lockdown, he was so decisive that the entire nation came together, by all saying at once, “so are we allowed out or not, then?”

For example, essential work is allowed to continue, which includes construction work, which makes sense, because if we don’t finish building 20-storey blocks of new apartments so they can stay empty for three years in Croydon, the whole fabric of society will break down.

So you can see why his hero is Churchill. Because in Britain’s darkest hour, Churchill’s speech was very similar to one of Johnson’s, going: “We strongly advise you to fight them on the beaches, if you can, in vino veritas, unless you are an essential beach worker, such as ice cream man, modus operandi and all that.”

It seems Johnson has been dragged at every turn into taking any action, by people and companies acting despite him, and scientists advising him, against his will. So we’ve ended up doing the same as every other country but two weeks later, and with less clarity.

You can sympathise with him, because he’s spent his life praising the free market, and all the solutions to this problem involve opposing the free market. Even the shortages in shops could have been avoided by basic rationing, but the free market dictates that if no one in the street has toilet roll, except for the Prendergast family who have hired a skip to put it all in, that’s for the best because the free market can’t be wrong.

Coronavirus: Boris Johnson warned mixed messages on social distancing could cost lives.mp4

So this is what we admired about him from the beginning; he might not be a proper politician, but at least he’s fun, and it’s all worked out because now he’s in charge of us during a deadly pandemic. Maybe that’s what causes some of the confusion.

On the other hand, you have the 83-year-old on a radio phone-in, who said he wanted to carry on working at his market stall and wasn’t worried about the virus because “I feel absolutely fine.”

He seems to have missed the sneaky way this disease works, which is, you do feel absolutely fine, right up until the point where you get the disease. That bloke has probably, on many occasions in his life, jumped off a four-storey building, because “I won’t break my leg. Look, it’s absolutely fine.”

I’ve no idea what you’re supposed to do with people like that.

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