WHAT to make of Boris Johnson? These days rock solid on Brexit (so far), but a total catastrophe on Covid-19. The seemingly daily changes in policy: Lockdowns; rules of six; tiers of one, two, three, a hundred. Who knows or cares any more? It is all a bewildering, demoralising blur.
The enormity of the cultural and economic catastrophe that Covid-19 – or rather the insane government response to it – has visited on the country defies description. The news on Friday that a no-deal Brexit looms would have once been the major news story of the year, but was instead confined to secondary headlines as the latest lockdowns were announced.
Some say that Johnson’s response to Covid-19 is the result of the psychological effect of having had the disease himself, and almost dying as a consequence.
That is not wholly convincing: Despite his larger than life style, Johnson has never shown all that much courage during his career. He failed to take on the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ union whilst London mayor; was in absentia when it came to lying in front of the Heathrow bulldozers; never died in a ditch over Brexit.
Alternatively, perhaps Johnson and his administration know full well that the Covid-19 is not a particularly dangerous disease but are terrified of the political fallout if they level with the public.
Both could be true, but what if there is a third, and ultimately far more dangerous factor? What if Boris Johnson, fascinated as he is with Churchill, seeks to channel his spirit? What if Boris Johnson simply yearns to be remembered as ‘The Great Man’?
All Prime Ministers probably want to be remembered as great, indeed it would be strange if they didn’t. Moreover, politics attracts not just the ambitious or the power-crazed, but the vain, the narcissistic and the emotionally needy: The old adage that politics is showbusiness for ugly people is true.
Once they reach the top, office often comes as something as a shock. Weighted down by the boring, grinding, unglamorous slog of incremental domestic reform, it is not surprising that many yearn to find and defeat an enemy in a simple Manichean struggle – one where there is no room for doubt about right and wrong; one where The Great Man can show virility, an unbending will and the ability to make very tough decisions.
All too often that has catastrophic consequences for the rest of us. Again and again it has found an outlet in fighting stupid foreign wars against foes inevitably cast as monsters: Eden convinced himself that Nasser was a new Hitler and plunged Britain into the national humiliation that was Suez; Cameron removed Gaddafi, catalysing the migrant crisis and reintroducing slave markets to North Africa in the process.
Worst of all was, of course, the great narcissist-in-chief Tony Blair, fighting endless wars, most notoriously Iraq. Although it has been alleged that Blair committed Britain to Iraq for venal reasons, knowing that becoming a ‘name’ in America would make him filthy rich, surely a bigger consideration was his pathological desire for acclaim, his deep yearning to be not just liked, but respected and remembered as The Great Man.
That shallow, emotional neediness is something that Boris very much shares with Blair. Lacking almost all political conviction, he has always wanted to be Prime Minister, or perhaps more correctly, given his lack of application to the job, as having been Prime Minister.
Delivering Brexit should have been enough to make him a historical figure of some note, but then along came Covid-19. Here we have a phenomenon that lends itself to the concept of the Manichean struggle, of defeating a terrifying scourge. A chance for The Great Man to shine.
To achieve greatness often means making, or being perceived to have made, very tough decisions that involve enormous sacrifice. Boris’s hero Churchill was of course no stranger to those, for instance sacrificing the British 30th Infantry Brigade at Calais during the German invasion of 1940, in order to buy time for the evacuation at Dunkirk.
What if, deep down, Boris sees the hideous economic and cultural ruin we are now undergoing as a similar sacrifice that he, The Great Man, must make in a titanic struggle against a merciless, implacable killer?
Just like Blair deluded himself concerning the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that he, The Great Man, must confront at all costs, Boris and perhaps many other world leaders have allowed themselves to be convinced that Covid-19 represents an existential threat when it is nothing of the kind.
As great a disaster Iraq was in so many ways, its consequences pale into insignificance against the cultural and economic desolation our response to Covid-19 has entailed.
Boris, like Blair, may end up on the scrapheap of history as a consequence: A forlorn figure doomed to hopelessly justify the unjustifiable, mourning for a reputation ruined; the crowds no longer applauding, the yearned-for respect forever withheld.
Narcissism, not Covid-19, is the most virulent and destructive disease of our age.