Infected, leaderless. How Boris Johnson’s brush with death revealed a lethal amateurism at the heart of government
There’s a squeamishness in this country about mixing the personal and the political. You can hear the old refrain from politicians: “talk about policy, talk about what really matters, play the ball not the man”. But sometimes that argument is an evasion.
What I’ve come to realise as I’ve been reporting this piece is that we’ve lived through a moment when questions that are normally intensely personal – people’s health – have become profoundly political, and very consequential. We haven’t taken them seriously enough, and it’s time we did.
The intensely personal fact – the one I set out to report – was the epidemic of coronavirus that raced through Downing St in March and April this year. A lot of people there caught it. Boris Johnson got it very badly.
We know that, of course. But we’ve overlooked what it really meant for the country when that group of senior civil servants, advisors and politicians – most of all the prime minister – got sick. As the dominoes fell in Number 10, infections rose outside. The effort to control the virus stalled. Care homes opened their doors to Covid-19.
Inside Number 10 it was noisy, amateurish chaos. Outside, a quiet wave of infection rolled across the country.
Inside and outside; the personal and political; the prime minister’s recovery and the death toll in the country. They’re related, and they tell us a lot about why the UK has handled this pandemic so very badly.
I’m Matt d’Ancona. I’ve pieced this story together from conversations with dozens of people who were in the room as the events I’m about to describe were unfolding. Like so many stories these days, this one starts on Twitter…
[Audio clip: Boris Johnson on the 27the March announcing: “I’m self-isolating…”]
As big a shock as this was to the outside world, what the Prime Minister had to say confirmed what a lot of people around him had feared for a week or so.
They’d watched him at close quarters and, independently or in whispered conversations, drawn their own conclusions They’d decided that their boss was (not to put too fine a point on it) not all there.
Someone in the Cabinet said this to me: “He was obviously not himself. Sort of abstracted. So we wanted to get everything signed off as fast as possible – in case he really was falling ill. Which, of course, he was.”
People outside the Cabinet were alarmed, too. Like the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. He was in and out of the Government’s Cobra meetings in the Cabinet Office.
And in one discussion just before lockdown, where they were talking about – get this – the possibility of putting armed guards in a perimeter around London, Sadiq Khan could tell that Boris Johnson, even at that moment, wasn’t taking it all in.
Of course, there was personal concern for his Prime Minister. But at the very top of government there was something else.
That is, a fairly ruthless determination to get the lockdown strategy in place, and soon, in case – as more than one senior person put it to me – “Boris did go off the reservation.”
What they needed, they agreed, was a core, short-term strategy in place that didn’t absolutely require the presence of the Prime Minister. If nothing else, we had the lockdown.
And if that has the whiff of desperation about it, that’s because ministers really were fearful about what they were seeing in meetings. A normally bumptious prime minister slipping slowly but inexorably into a health crisis.
“Sweaty”, “breathless”, “out of it”: that’s how they now recall him in the last ten days of March.
So there was a race against time. By this point, the Government’s attachment to the idea of ‘herd immunity’ was a distant memory.
You remember – that was the plan to let the virus infect 60 per cent of the population. And it had been ditched very quickly when a study by Imperial College, London, concluded that it might result in 500,000 deaths.
The strategy had now shifted from ‘nudge’ to ‘thump’.
As Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, had put it to Boris Johnson, slamming his hand on the table: “We’ve got to tell people that they can’t do anything unless it is explicitly allowed by law.”
Legally, that was a revolution even if it was meant to be time-limited. Normally, people are free to do what they like unless the law prohibits it.
But Matt Hancock’s radical suggestion, which he described as Napoleonic, flipped that British tradition. In lockdown, people would be forbidden from doing anything unless the legislation said, in terms, that they could.
Remarkably, the bill setting out the legal basis for the new regime – the most authoritarian since the Second World War – raced through Parliament with almost no amendment and very little discussion. The Coronavirus Act 2020 received royal assent on Wednesday March 25.
Two weeks before that, most of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s emergency economic package had already been announced in his budget on March 11. Six days later, in Downing St, he unveiled a £350bn stimulus plan.
Part of the reason Rishi Sunak was able to move so quickly was because some of the measures were adapted from existing plans put together by his predecessor Sajid Javid: plans for a No-Deal Brexit.
Much to his colleagues’ relief, all this was in in place when the Prime Minister made his historic announcement on March 23.
[Audio clip: The announcement of lockdown on 23 March: “I can give the British people a very simple instruction: you must stay at home.”]
It was decisive and clear – and alarming. Twenty seven million of us watched that moment, and heard the PM’s instruction to stay at home. And more or less immediately – to an extent that took ministers by surprise – we, the British people, did exactly as we were told.
What we didn’t know was that the rush to get the lockdown strategy in place spoke volumes about how rickety the system of government was, right at the top.
Boris’s Cabinet colleagues knew their limitations, and the limitations of the structure the PM had built around himself.
Lockdown was clearly only the beginning: there were still huge questions unanswered in many other areas. What stocks did we have of PPE protection for NHS workers? How many people were we going to test for the virus? And what, precisely, was going on in care homes?
The top team knew they couldn’t take these and other key decisions without the Prime Minister. The rest of us would only find that out later.
[Audio clip: 3 March, Johnson daily briefing: “I was shaking hands with everyone.”]
That’s the laughing cavalier of Number 10 way back on 3 March, positively scorning the risk of infection from coronavirus.
When it hit the top ranks of government, it did so with a vengeance. But, in retrospect, there was a shocking amateurishness about the response to what was, quite literally, a lethal threat to the UK’s ability to govern itself.
Matt Hancock, for a start, had been feeling out of sorts in the week beginning March 23. He got himself tested…
[Audio clip: 27 March, Matt Hancock on Twitter: “I’ve tested positive but I’ve got mild symptoms”]
A lot of people around Westminster thought that announcement had been co-ordinated with Boris Johnson’s on the same day, to get the bad news out of the way in one viral dose.
In fact, the opposite was true: Hancock was about to phone his boss to tell him – when up on his screen flashed the sensational news that the Prime Minister had tested positive, too.
It’s odd, you might think, that the Prime Minister and Health Secretary hadn’t thought to mention to each other that they were being tested for the deadly virus that was spreading around the world. At least to compare notes.
But there was always an element of Whitehall farce to this story. Gentlemen amateurs trying to make light of lethal sickness. The left hand not talking to the right – or, sometimes, to anyone.
On the same day Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s closest adviser, was seen making a mad dash from Number Ten. He’d left his wife, Mary Wakefield, at their home in London, where she seemed to be exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19.
[Audio clip: 30 March, Dominic Cummings is self-isolating]
We didn’t find out until late May, but Dominic Cummings and Mary Wakefield set off with their four-year-old son on a 260-mile, lockdown-busting car journey to Durham, where they planned to self-isolate in a house on the family farm for a fortnight.
At the time, it turns out, not even the Prime Minister knew that Dominic Cummings was in the North. That disclosure – and the media storm it prompted – was still a long way down the track.
Back in Downing Street, Boris Johnson was leading a pretty wretched and solitary existence. He was self-isolating in his flat, and his pregnant fiancée, Carrie Symonds, was doing the same at their home.
And, unlike a US President, Boris Johnson didn’t have a full medical unit at hand 24/7; nor a dedicated doctor, usually a senior military officer, like they have in the White House.
It’s that running theme in our story: a sort of informality, typically English but obviously irresponsible.
There is no Number Ten doctor. The prime minister of the day makes his or her own arrangements – private or NHS.
Which meant that, for more than a week after he tested positive for coronavirus, the welfare of the UK’s head of government – the man in charge of the nuclear codes, at the helm of the fifth richest country in the world – was basically being left to chance.
His meals were left outside his door. And his medical treatment was amazingly haphazard. It would be comic, if it wasn’t so serious.
As one of the Prime Minister’s allies told me: “Look. Boris is 17-and-a-half stone and doesn’t take care of himself apart from the odd run. He needs people to look after him – and there was nobody. He was seeing a GP now and then and speaking on the phone to doctors. But it was all totally ad hoc.”
He was weak, and you could tell. But the Prime Minister posted another Twitter message, daring, in his isolation, to challenge one of Margaret Thatcher’s most famous sayings.
[Audio clip: 29 March, Johnson on Twitter: “… Coronavirus has already proved there really is such a thing as society.”]
Meanwhile, Matt Hancock was at home. He couldn’t eat or drink for two days, and he was sleeping for 12 hours at a time.
But, in the Health Secretary’s case, the virus didn’t progress to its second phase, where it causes huge inflammation and becomes seriously life-threatening. The phase where awful and sometimes permanent damage is done to the body.
He was able to work on every day of his self-isolation except one – and he went back to normal duties on Thursday April 2.
By this stage, the famous black gates of Downing Street had become almost a revolving door of sickness.
If you’ve been inside there you wouldn’t be surprised. The back-offices of Number Ten and the Cabinet Office are sweaty and cramped. If coronavirus was looking for a home where it could really thrive, it couldn’t ask for a better one.
As one Cabinet Minister told me: “It was all positively unhygienic. The only question was who was going to get sick next.”
The Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings were absent. So was the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty.
[Audio clip: 27 March, Chris Witty is self-isolating]
Members of Chris Whitty’s team, perhaps inevitably, came down with symptoms.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, would later self-isolate because his daughter had developed some coronavirus symptoms. But he made a point in private of emphasising that, unlike some, he hadn’t actually succumbed to the virus.
Sir Eddie Lister, the PM’s 70-year-old chief strategic advisor, has been essentially missing in action throughout the crisis. People who’ve tried to contact him have been told instead to email Ben Gascoigne, Boris Johnson’s political secretary.
And although Number Ten insists that Sir Eddie remains in post, people tell me that soundings are being taken for a new chief-of-staff.
And then there’s Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary. He also discreetly self-isolated during that first spike of infections, without announcing it publicly. Why not?
One Whitehall official offered a thin sort of excuse: “It would have been unnecessarily alarmist. Lots of people were sick… Remember, his predecessor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, worked till the day he died. And Sedwill is a macho guy from the Home Office.”
Well, maybe. But, in a crisis where trust in government is so important, it was surely a mistake not to be transparent from the start.
At the time, a whisper went round that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak had also self-isolated. That was denied, but two people who know him well told me otherwise. They say the chancellor quietly quarantined himself to be on the safe side. Again, why the confused signals?
At any rate, Rishi Sunak appeared on the steps of Number Ten at 8pm on Thursday April 2 to clap NHS key workers. Beside him but socially distanced was the Prime Minister, looking, frankly, terrible.
“I am not allowed out, really,” he said. “I’m just standing here.”
A week after he broke the news that he had coronavirus, the Prime Minister was clearly not getting better. On Friday, April 3, he took to Twitter yet again, doing his best to sound cheerful but convincing fewer and fewer people.
[Audio clip: 3 April, Johnson on Twitter “I’m on the mend, I have one remaining, minor symptom”. He says he’s getting better, but he’s looking much worse.]
In fact, he’d gone downhill so badly that a bed had been prepared for him at St Thomas’s Hospital, just the other side of the Thames. The Prime Minister, trying to stay stoic, refused to be taken over the bridge to the ward.
But by the weekend even his inner circle was wondering how long he could keep up the masquerade. And the media were smelling a rat – the silences of sources becoming more and more revealing as one senior broadcaster recalls.
On Sunday, April 5, the scenery came crashing down; all that stiff-upper lip resilience. Boris Johnson was rushed to hospital, so distressed that he had to be given oxygen in the car.
[Audio clip: BBC Breaking News, PM admitted to hospital]
At this point, Mark Sedwill realised he had to step up to the plate.
It fell to him, as Cabinet Secretary and custodian of the government’s continuity and integrity, to read the riot act to the so-called quad of senior ministers: Matt Hancock, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary. Dominic Raab is also First Secretary of State – so he’s Boris Johnson’s official understudy if not officially Deputy Prime Minister.
“We all have to operate like grown-ups now,” Sedwill told the four politicians.
As one senior source put it to me: “The message was clear: no fucking about, lads.”
The next few days, as everyone close to the drama admits, were about as tense, fearful and high-octane as anything in recent British political history.
[Audio clip: 6 April, Downing St press conference. Dominic Raab: “PM admitted to hospital for precautionary reasons. He’s in good spirits. He’s in charge. The team is full-throttle making sure his instructions are implemented.”]
Like a rabbit in the headlights, that was Dominic Raab doing the Downing Street press briefing on 6 April. He did his best to sound plausible – and it wasn’t really good enough.
By this stage, the media sensed that the official Soviet-style bulletins about the Prime Minister’s health were a long way from the truth.
Quite how far became clear when the news broke that Boris Johnson had been transferred to intensive care at seven o’clock on Sunday evening.
[Audio clip: 6 April, PM ICU move]
I remember my own reaction very well. I’ve been in intensive care myself, so if I say that I know the smell of death you’ll know what I mean.
Johnson and I have known each other for more than 20 years – I succeeded him as Editor of The Spectator magazine in 2006 – and we’ve had our fallings out. But at that point, I just wanted him to get better.
At a human level this was the only decent response. But – like the relentless machine it is – the business of government had to go on.
In the hours that followed, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock stayed in constant touch with one another
“We need to do the right thing,” one of them said. “We need to be appropriate.”
That may seem an odd, slightly prim word to use when you’re describing a crisis in government.
But it reflects the sense all four politicians had of the gravity of the situation. And their shared intuition that history would not judge them well if they lost the plot now.
The press had been full of stories of tensions between Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove on the one hand – pressing for the restrictions on the economy to be relaxed – and Matt Hancock on the other, urging caution until the infection rate came down and the NHS was under less pressure.
But now they were confronted with a terrible possibility: that a prime minister might die in office for the first time since Palmerston in 1865.
Across the land, hasty plans were being drawn up to deal with the previously unthinkable.
Public health authorities were tipped off to be ready for the effect that the prime minister’s death might have on NHS morale and patient anxiety,
Remarkably, the BBC – which has detailed plans on how it would cover the death of senior members of the royal family – didn’t at any stage convene a formal meeting of its news and political team to draw up a serious grid.
There were, I am told, only a few very informal chats at the BBC about what to do if the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury were, in fact, to die.
There it is again; the refrain that’s such a feature of this story. No protocols, no procedure, the English habit of winging it being tested to destruction.
Back in Whitehall, the quad – those four political big-hitters – held daily meetings at 9:15 am, in person, on Zoom, or a hybrid of the two.
Before Boris Johnson got sick, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock had waged a prickly Whitehall turf war. It had annoyed the Prime Minister and amused the media. But not in these sombre days.
As Westminster held its breath – and Boris Johnson’s condition made front page news around the world – even the government’s most incorrigible plotters suspended hostilities.
The show of solidarity and professionalism barely concealed what was described to me by one of the principals as “an out-of-body light-headedness”.
The sheer weirdness of the experience is something that those who had a ringside seat refer to time and again.
In the circumstances, handling front of house was a delicate task. And there was a serious risk in downplaying the seriousness of the Prime Minister’s condition and jeopardising the public’s trust at this, of all moments.
Unfortunately, Dominic Raab insisted on a macho show of confidence in Boris Johnson’s powers of resistance that began to stray from common decency into foolishness and implausibility.
[Audio clip: 7 April, Downing St press conference. Dominic Raab: “Confident he will recover.”]
How could he be sure of this? Dominic Raab is a karate black-belt with a law degree. He’s not a doctor. At a moment of high national emotion, he risked taking the public for mugs.
By this point, the circle of people who knew exactly what was going on in the ICU ward of St Thomas’s was tiny. Boris Johnson’s immediate family, and of course, his fiancée Carrie. And Lee Cain, his communications director.
A former journalist on the Daily Mirror, Lee Cain is one of Johnson’s very closest allies – and, with Dominic Cumming’s away, he was taking a lot of the daily meetings in Number Ten.
What he and only a few others knew was quite how bad it really was for his boss. Absolutely touch-and-go.
Statistically, the chances of survival for coronavirus patients admitted to intensive care are about fifty-fifty.
The most significant variable is intubation – that’s to say, whether or not doctors need to use mechanical ventilation. Once you’re intubated, your odds of living to tell the tale fall to about a third.
If the Prime Minister could keep going on a CPAP machine – that is, continuous positive airway pressure, a mask over your mouth rather than a tube into your lungs – he had a chance of making it. And if not, not.
As one of Johnson’s confidants puts it: “I remember thinking: if he’s put on a ventilator, the best case scenario is he’s out of action for six months.”
So, as evening turned to night, everyone waited.
Early on the morning of Wednesday April 8, a member of the quad received a text to alert him to the good news that Johnson had not, after all, needed intubation.
As that Cabinet minister now says: “That was when I knew he’d probably be ok. But – bloody hell – it was a close run thing.”
Later that day, Rishi Sunak confirmed that the PM was “sitting up in bed” – and the next day Boris Johnson was moved to a general ward at St Thomas’s.
They’d stared into the abyss, but now his team started busily to brief a story of happy recovery. The Prime Minister, we were told, was enjoying his favourite movies like Withnail and I and Lord of the Rings.
On Friday 10 April, his father, Stanley, went on the BBC’s Today programme and captured the story with a characteristic flourish:
[Audio clip: Stanley Johnson on the Today programme. “He almost took one for the team”.]
On Sunday April 12, only a week after he had been rushed to hospital, the Prime Minister was discharged.
He took to Twitter again…
[Audio clip: 12 April, Boris Johnson’s statement after leaving hospital. “I want to thank the many nurses… Jenny from New Zealand, Luis from Portugal”. ]
It was vintage Johnson. A feel-good moment to savour, after a week of near-disaster. At the time it was easy to get caught up in the drama of the moment: he was back on his feet, and it was a very powerful statement. But if you get a chance, watch that video again. He looks absolutely dreadful.
And – as it turned out – this was only a punctuation mark in the grand drama of the lockdown.
On the very same day, although it was still a month before Boris Johnson and the rest of us would learn about it, Dominic Cummings and his family went on a drive to Barnard Castle, to “test his eyesight” for the longer drive back to London.
Hundreds of miles away from Westminster, the seeds of a huge controversy were being sown.
The Prime Minister had survived. But his government was storing up big trouble.
Wednesday, April 15, and Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, makes, potentially, the most important announcement of the lockdown.
But behind the scenes, ministers were praying to whatever gods they believed in that he was right.
Traditionally, Matt Hancock’s family makes a big deal of Easter but, this year, the Health Secretary had worked straight through the Easter weekend, April 10th to 12th.
Because even as the Prime Minister battled for his life, a parallel drama was unfolding in wards and care homes across the land.
The question, to be blunt, was whether the virus could be stopped at all.
On April 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th the daily death toll was higher than 1,000. The rise was deeply alarming.
The nation was in lockdown, the economy was frozen, and schools were closed. Nightingale hospitals were up and running. As one Downing Street source put it to me: “We’d thrown the whole bloody kitchen sink at it. If that didn’t work, we didn’t know what to do.”
And then – at almost exactly the same time as the Prime Minister defied death – the tide seemed to turn on mortality figures.
There were still going to be a few more, grim days when the tally would rise over a thousand, but the downward curve began after Easter.
And the NHS – still severely lacking in PPE; tested to its very limit; mourning the deaths of scores of health workers – had not been completely overwhelmed.
Officially, ministers insist that this was the result of considered planning and careful decisions…
In private, they admit the stalling of the disease in early April was – just like the PM’s survival – a “close-run thing”.
As one of the principals put it to me: “If you chop off the graph of deaths at April 8 and imagine the line carrying on going upwards, it is fucking terrifying.” The first spike was over. But, otherwise, the news was not good.
What had happened during Boris Johnson’s days in hospital was not a coup d’etat but the precise opposite. A group of senior ministers had stuck to a minimal plan, going by the book, but doing much too little to prepare for the even greater challenges that lay ahead.
Which is the most damning aspect of the whole thing: the whole country was now suffering from the power vacuum in the first half of April.
Deaths from coronavirus? The highest in Europe.
Care homes? The scandal hiding in plain sight where elderly patients were dying in their thousands.
Testing for the virus? Way behind schedule.
PPE for NHS care workers? Woefully inadequate.
Government-backed loans to businesses? Operating, but at a snail’s pace.
School reopening? Promises made, but not delivered.
Something was sick at the heart of government. An institutional illness and a very English naiveté that was no longer charming.
The world was starting to notice all this haplessness – and holding Britain up to scorn. Listen to the US late night talk show host Trevor Noah on Johnson’s positive test.
[Audio clip: Trevor Noah on Boris]
As the shock of the Prime Minister’s brush with death receded, scary realities were dawning on the Cabinet. They were beginning to process the lessons of Johnson’s brush with death.
The first was raw and political. The Conservatives had won the general election hands-down in December, crushing Jeremy Corbyn. But, in the words of one senior minister, “it was really Boris that won, not the party”.
Even as he started his convalescence, his more calculating colleagues were starting to brood on this. What if the Tory leader didn’t get back to peak political fitness?
Come the next election, could the party hold on to its gains – especially in the so-called Red Wall of former Labour seats? Already, Keir Starmer – who was declared Labour leader the day before Boris Johnson went into hospital – was looking and sounding plausible. Would a much-diminished Boris be able to hold him off?
One Cabinet minister described it to me with gallows humour as “the LBJ question”.
When John F Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson was on hand to be sworn in as his successor on the plane back from Dallas. But who, so to speak, was Boris Johnson’s Johnson?
Rishi Sunak clearly wants the job – “so ambitious he squeaks when he walks” as one venerable Tory puts it. But he only became Chancellor in February and, to get the job, he had to give up the right to pick his own advisers to Number Ten. He hasn’t yet built up a power base in the party. His day may come, but it’s too soon.
So, if not him as the reserve Prime Minister, then who? Which red button could the Tories press if Boris relapsed into ill health?
If this sounds horribly ruthless, that’s because it is. Welcome to Conservative politics.
Never forget this is the party that kicked out Margaret Thatcher after she’d won three elections for them. The Tory talent for survival is not confined to the intensive care unit.
The second lesson was that the Cabinet was more like a backing band than a team of big beasts. In the great Brexiteer purges of 2019 and the reshuffle in February this year, Boris Johnson had chosen his colleagues for their loyalty rather than their competence. Which meant there was nobody of stature – who obviously spoke with the Prime Minister’s full authority and knew his mind – to step into his shoes.
This was more than a weak spot. It was a structural disaster for a country now facing a potentially deep recession, huge debt and massive problems of social recovery.
Every government needs strong leadership, but no successful one can be a solo act.
Coronavirus leaves scarring on those who suffer its worst symptoms but survive.
And Britain had suffered, too, while the Prime Minister was away – from the virus of indecision. In the crucial first half of April, the national in-tray was bulging – and nobody was taking charge.
As one Cabinet source puts it: “In these situations, a week is an enormously long period of time. There were all sorts of demands piling up. Medical equipment, testing, PPE, the future strategy. There was this sense of: now, we do need some answers.”
Business agreed. Time and again the point was made to senior ministers that, even with Rishi Sunak’s rescue measures, two successive quarters of liabilities – rent, payroll, other regular operating costs – and no revenues to speak of, would leave huge numbers of businesses bankrupt.
On Thursday April 16, Dominic Raab, feeling the heat, announced a holding position. Lockdown was going to be extended for at least three more weeks. And it would only be relaxed once five tests were met.
Again, the press reported growing rifts between Matt Hancock and Rishi Sunak: the Health Secretary demanded caution, and the Chancellor impressed on his colleagues that the country had to accept some measure of risk to avoid a devastating recession.
The reality was more subtle. Rishi Sunak is the son of a GP, and he wasn’t insensitive to public health. And Matt Hancock, who’d studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford and cut his teeth as chief of staff to George Osborne, was hardly indifferent to the economy.
The real difference was Boris Johnson. He’d emerged from hospital, in the words of one colleague, “a bit kumbaya-ish”.
The old Johnson – the pre-COVID version – had been a flinty advocate of risk, swashbuckling enterprise and libertarianism. Back in the BSE crisis – mad cow disease – he’d urged people to eat as much beef as they could.
But that figure was a distant memory. Post-Covid, he was a more cautious creature, less arrogant, and full of empathy towards people who were suffering from the virus or at risk from it.
More to the point, like Macavity the Mystery Cat, he wasn’t there – physically, or spiritually,
So when they were pressed by business and the media for a road-map out of lockdown, ministers had to keep stalling.
On Friday 24 April, the Prime Minister held a three-hour meeting with Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain at Chequers. The next day, he went back to work in Number Ten.
Three days later, Johnson made his first formal statement as Prime Minister since he’d left hospital.
[Audio clip: Boris Johnson compares the coronavirus to a mugger]
Dominic Raab, who was relieved to be relieved of his role as temporary front-man, hailed the PM’s return to work as a “boost for the country”.
The country badly needed one. The headlines about impending recession, PPE shortages and the delays on testing for the virus were submerging the government.
True, its poll ratings remained high, and so did Boris Johnson’s.
And if this story were only a novel, the final page – a happy ending – would have been written on Wednesday April 29 when Carrie Symonds gave birth to the couple’s first child, Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas. That last name is a tribute to Dr Nick Price and Dr Nick Hart, two of the doctors who saved Boris Johnson’s life.
But this isn’t just a personal tale. It is a story of personal drama deeply entangled with national crisis.
And that national crisis had reached yet another cross-roads.
The fact is that, in the crucial fortnight after he went back to work, Boris Johnson was the principal barrier to lockdown being relaxed. In the Downing Street press conference on April 30, he spoke cautiously, and set an absolute premium on avoiding a second spike.
[Audio clip: Boris Johnson’s April 30 press conference]
People who talked to him around this time describe his position as a combination of shell-shock, fatigue and protective instinct.
He now felt, very deeply indeed, that his primary responsibility was to people who were sick or disadvantaged by the lockdown. He wasn’t focused yet on relaxing any of the restrictions.
This was more than emotional whimsy. It had very expensive real-world consequences.
Rishi Sunak was keen to wind down the furloughing scheme under which the state paid 80 per cent of the salaries of employees who couldn’t work, up to £2,500 a month,.
But Boris Johnson vetoed his chancellor. He insisted that the scheme had to remain open – albeit modified – until October.
In other words: the status quo survived. And the fiscal implications were huge.
As one Cabinet minister says: “We’d had a pretty odd merry-go-round for a few weeks. But now there was a worry growing – you know, we need some decisions about ending lockdown. Can we have them please?”
There was the media beast to feed, too, at daily press conferences. On May 1, Matt Hancock announced that a long-promised milestone had been reached:
[Audio clip: Matt Hancock says the daily testing target has been met]
This claim quickly unravelled in a controversy over the precise meaning of the target. Did the number refer to tests administered and processed, or, as seemed to be the case, test kits sent out?
The politics of moments like this are complicated. In crises, governments are expected to announce things, hit targets, do stuff.
On top of this, there was the growing pressure from business to offer a route-map out of lockdown. Something aggressive enough to prevent the economy tanking.
And it was becoming increasingly clear that the health-versus-economy argument – lives versus livelihoods – was a false dichotomy. If UK plc fell into a deep recession the consequences for the mental and physical health of millions would be colossal.
Ministers who were old enough to remember the high unemployment of the 80s feared that every further week of lockdown would be paid for in months and years of social and economic suffering.
The problem was that the Prime Minister himself didn’t know what he thought. In fact, as one of his colleagues put it, he thought “two things at once”: on the one hand, that as Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and commander-in-chief of Brexit Britain, he had an almost sacred duty to rev up the UK economy.
But on the other hand – as the only head of government in the world to feel the full sting of coronavirus – he was morally obliged to put patients, the NHS and care home residents first.
The result, in the week beginning Monday May 3 was nothing short of a messaging disaster.
The week began with reports that Boris Johnson intended to unveil his plan to ease lockdown the following Sunday – which was true.
But there was still an intense debate about what he’d actually say.
Focus groups about the proposed shift of strategy had shown that people liked the suggested new slogan: “Stay Alert”.
But the same research revealed that they liked the existing mantra – “Stay at Home” – much more.
As one Cabinet source told me: “The irony is that we were worried about lockdown working. In fact, if anything, it worked too well!”
In principle, people liked the idea of getting back to normality. Pubs, football, socialising, shopping, everyday life.
In practice, they were still worried about infection, about social distancing, about the welfare of their children – even though young people are the least endangered by Covid-19.
And voters had clocked that Britain hadn’t handled the crisis as well as other countries. Dominic Raab did his best to put that anxiety to rest at the daily press conference on May 5.
[Audio clip: Dominic Raab is critical about international comparisons on death tolls]
Public opinion was facing in two directions at once – set us free but keep us safe. There was an urgent need for leadership and decisiveness.
And, right on cue, there was an outbreak of jubilant clarity in the red-top press on Thursday May 7. Monday, May 11 was going to be a glorious day of national emancipation.
“HAPPY MONDAY” was the headline on the front page of The Sun, and the Daily Mail went even further: “HURRAH! LOCKDOWN FREEDOM BECKONS”.
But when Boris Johnson convened his Cabinet on Zoom that day his message was much less celebratory. In fact he declined to resolve the dilemma or to steer the ship of state definitively in one direction.
His orders to his top team were to “advance with extreme caution” – which, as one of them pointed out, was like “marching us up to the top of the hill – but with a clear option to march back down again. We were pretty clueless.”
Which, to be fair, was a rational response to what they were hearing. The Prime Minister himself hadn’t settled on a strategy. His answer to the dilemma was to restate it rather than resolve it.
So let’s cut to the concluding vignette of our story.
At lunchtime on Sunday, May 10, the Cabinet got together on Zoom to discuss the statement that was due to be broadcast that night.
Some of the people on the call were annoyed to have found out that parts of the address had already been recorded the day before. Boris Johnson had been consulting his allies over the weekend– he’d been doing that as late as Sunday morning – but most Cabinet members felt that they’d been kept out of the loop.
What should have been a clear steer for Government and a reassertion of authority became a patchy affair. The Prime Minister had to apologise to Matt Hancock for briefings about him – clearly well-sourced, and not friendly – in the Sunday papers.
At 7pm, the full 13-minute statement was broadcast. It began with a stab at Churchillian uplift and a declaration of gratitude.
[Audio clip: Johnson’s address to the nation, thanking the public for complying with lockdown.]
But for anyone used to the effortless Johnson style of rhetoric it was obvious that all was not well. You could hear that he was out of breath. He waved his arms about curiously and, at one point, banged the desk to emphasise a point.
The cadences were strange, the rhythm was off by a beat or two. If Boris Johnson had been a less accomplished speaker, perhaps nobody would have noticed. But it was very clear that the Prime Minister was a long way from full health. He was straining for effect and far from his usual confident self.
[Audio clip: Johnson launches into a strange section of his address, listing different kind of jobs.]
The argument, rushed and sometimes even garbled, was very hard to follow. By the end, Johnson sounded as relieved as the rest of us that the whole thing was over.
[Audio clip: The finale of Johnson’s statement.]
Worse than the delivery was the confusing content. And it was made all the more bewildering by low-tech graphics and a colour scheme for the new Covid alert system that was embarrassingly similar to the palette used by Nando’s chicken restaurant.
The comedian Matt Lucas posted a satire of the statement. He didn’t have to change it much for comic effect, and it went viral.
In politics, there’s something I call Woltz’s Law.
If you’re a fan of The Godfather, you’ll remember the studio boss, Jack Woltz, browbeating the mafia consigliere, Tom Hagen, telling him that: “A man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous!”
A head of government can’t afford to look ridiculous, either. And some of Boris Johnson’s colleagues believed that, in this statement he had come perilously close to that.
They wondered, in private, how badly he’d been diminished and whether he could make a full-blooded return to the Boris of old.
Within a few weeks, he’d go from unprecedented popularity in the polls to lagging behind Keir Starmer.
His closest adviser, Dominic Cummings, would become the centre of the storm over breaches of lockdown that would cost the government a huge amount in political capital and moral authority.
And all this on the cusp of a recession that looked like it might be horribly long and deep.
Which wasn’t to say that he wouldn’t recover, or that he was finished, or – most prematurely of all – that Labour was somehow going to win the next election.
But, less than six months after his general election triumph, the Prime Minister had to prove himself all over again. As he intimated to friends, it felt like he was starting from scratch.
That, of course, was the political price exacted by what he called this “devilish illness”.
Our story ends on a cliff-hanger because that’s where coronavirus leaves its survivors and the societies it tears through.
Grateful to be alive, uncertain of the future, doubting past practice, hoping for the chance to renew and refresh – but not counting on it.
As with the prime minister, so with the country, a greater story was only just beginning, with an unknowable duration and an uncertain outcome.
We are living in it still.