Conspiracy theories abound. I have heard both these, attributed to inside sources at St Thomas’s Hospital. One, that Boris Johnson wasn’t really that ill; he was moved to the intensive care unit to get him out of the way, and so he could milk the “brush with death” story for as much sympathy as he could muster. The other, that he was seriously ill, that anyone who needs oxygen will suffer lasting physical and cognitive damage, and that he is a shadow of his former self.
They cannot both be true, and in fact neither of them is. The truth is that he was pretty ill; that he was moved to intensive care as a precaution; that the virus knocked the stuffing out of him for a bit; and that he is now back to his previous levels of irritating boisterousness, bonhomie and busy-ness.
It is possible to make this diagnosis through the wonders of modern medicine, which allow us to examine the patient remotely, using a technology known as Twitch, and other advanced science called Facebook and Twitter. Yesterday, Johnson took part in a “People’s PMQs” session on video.
Many journalists hated it, partly because it was finally broadcast hours later than expected, which messed up their plans, but partly because members of the public were asking the questions rather than journalists, and partly because it was pre-recorded, which meant that, in effect, it was a piece of No 10 propaganda.
The thing about propaganda, though, is that it can be good or bad, and what was interesting about this propaganda was how effective it was. Johnson cut down the gosh where am I ruffle hair unfinished sentence blink blink, and came across as articulate, focused and friendly. He took the questions seriously and answered them plausibly enough.
He did jokes, but they were self-contained asides. “I’m very much pro-mole,” he said, apologising to the Mole Preservation Society (there is no such thing) for using the whack-a-mole analogy for containing virus outbreaks – except for Whitehall moles who leak and cause trouble. And he played with words, saying it was important for students to be in universities physically to benefit from the “cyclotron of talents”, a form of showing off that people enjoy or not according to taste.
He had come with two new messages, one of which was to switch from “work from home if you can” to “go to work if you can”, which probably doesn’t mean much in practice while public transport is restricted and many offices have lifts. The other was to prepare the ground for asking people to wear masks in shops, which set the scene for Johnson to be photographed wearing a mask later.
The subtext of People’s PMQs, though, was that it confirmed what an effective communicator he still is. Many of the politically engaged classes cannot see it, because they have built up an idea of him as an opportunist Brexiteer who has handled the coronavirus appallingly badly, but from what I have seen of focus groups of undecided voters recently, I think they would have liked yesterday’s performance.
It is possible that the conventional media wisdom, like any volatile market, has overshot recently. Johnson has presided over one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world, for which I assumed he would be blamed, mostly unfairly, and yet half the population still trusts him to handle the crisis. Dominic Cummings’s breach of lockdown rules might have done lasting damage, but not that much. And the media consensus may have overwritten Keir Starmer’s admittedly impressive first 100 days as Labour leader. Hence yesterday’s YouGov opinion poll, putting the Conservatives on 46 per cent, 10 points ahead of the official opposition.
It may be that we journalists have overshot on Rishi Sunak too. The chancellor has made a remarkable first impression, and it puts the Tory party in a strong position that they have a spare in case the current prime minister should come a cropper. But we have had a popular chancellor before who had to wait a long time before a tenacious prime minister finally yielded to political gravity.
Johnson is just as determined as Tony Blair ever was to stay in office. As significant as People’s PMQs yesterday was another video put out by the No 10 propaganda machine: a message from the prime minister to young people leaving school, at a time of “the greatest crisis our country has faced since the Second World War”. It is like a US-style commencement address, and goodness knows what students make of it, if they see it, as he enjoins them to help “make our society fairer, make our air cleaner, stop our planet getting warmer”.
But what is striking about it is the way in which Johnson seems to be urging himself on as much as he is encouraging the school-leavers. “The really exciting bit is yet to come; we have an incredible opportunity to do things differently,” he says. “Your journey forward will not always be easy. There are always going to be people who want to pour a bucket of cold water on your ideas. People who like to sit on the sidelines, criticise, sometimes with good cause, sometimes for the sake of criticising. And of course, you may make some mistakes. But the important thing is to get out there, to keep picking yourself up, to keep trying again and again … Bring enthusiasm, energy, to everything that you do.”
It is much too early to be writing Boris Johnson off.