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Dublin: 24 °C Tuesday 2 June, 2020
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Opinion: Boris is England’s King Midas. All he touched turned to gold, but now must be disinfected

Peter Flanagan says Covid-19 has stripped Johnson of his dreams of a clean Brexit legacy.

Peter Flanagan Irish comedian and writer

SPARE A THOUGHT for Boris Johnson. In the relentless, lecherous pursuit of his ambitions, he shafted friends, his family and arguably his own liberal values. Now less than a year after being handed the keys to number 10 Downing Street, he is trapped inside of it.

Diagnosed with Covid-19, Johnson has been forced to work from the home he has coveted since childhood. His face now beams out at us via Skype like a spectre, a bloated reminder of the dystopia our world has become.

Brexit was to define his political legacy, but that seems small-fry now; a petty administrative quibble when compared to the existential Year Zero we now face.

His dithering, cynical initial reaction to the crisis was surely fuelled by denial – he’d just won one of the greatest electoral victories in history and was clearly enjoying himself. Imagine the sinking feeling he must have felt when presented with the brute scientific realities of the coronavirus.

Flip the script

The misinformation and politics of division which catapulted him to power would be of no use against a pandemic. There is no way to ‘spin’ a plague. You cannot blame bacteria on Belgian bureaucrats or Labour commies. How impotent must Johnson have felt when he realised he had nothing else in his arsenal?

Leaving schools and pubs open while Britain’s neighbour’s locked down, Johnson and his team took a more nonchalant approach, much to the chagrin of medical experts at home and abroad. Then two weeks after boasting about visiting a hospital with coronavirus patients and “shaking hands with absolutely everybody!” Johnson himself came down with the disease.

The next day, his Health Minister came down with it as well. Hours later, Chief Medical Officer and brains behind the aborted ‘herd immunity’ strategy Chris Whitty admitted he had symptoms, too.

coronavirus Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove answering questions from the media via a video link during a media briefing in Downing Street. Source: PA

Gove to the rescue?

With his boss off sick, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (what does that even mean?) Michael Gove led that evening’s press conference instead. There was no other candidate more fitting.

Gove is a man who before the Brexit referendum said that the British public had “had enough of experts”. With the Prime Minister, the Minister for Health and the Chief Medical Officer off sick with a disease they failed to take seriously, this politics of ignorance has reached its inevitable, surreal conclusion.

As Johnson and his allies look increasingly ridiculous, public confidence in the Conservative party may be partly attributed to the smooth performance so far of Rishi Sunak. Appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer after Sajid Javid refused to play ball, Sunak was supposed to be Johnson’s lapdog.

coronavirus Chancellor Rishi Sunak speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street. Source: PA

Yet as Johnson has slowly unravelled, Sunak has come across as steady and reliable, calmly offering workers and the business community the reassurances they sorely needed.

He has not only found the “magic money tree” that Teresa May said didn’t exist, but he’s climbed to the top of it and started waving a Union Jack about. His multi-billion pound bailout package has made Jeremy Corbyn – who’s 2019 Labour manifesto was dismissed as leftist fantasy, remember? – look like The Grinch.

In blending an earnest, Tony Blair-esque public demeanour with the fiscal policy of a rapper in a strip club, Sunak has been the surprise star of Britain’s Covid-19 crisis. If Johnson’s head rolls, Sunak will surely fancy his chances.

Brexit? A legacy no more

It seems inevitable now Johnson will be judged not on delivering Brexit, but on his handling of this pandemic. A poll last week suggested he remains popular, but will this last as the death toll rises?

Even Dominic Cummings –often credited as the brains behind Johnson’s general election success – was seen running away from number 10 shortly after Johnson’s diagnosis, like a man moving onto his next mark (he didn’t run quick enough – it is now being reported that he too has symptoms).

His political rivals are surely watching the poorly Prime Minister like vultures. The isolated Johnson at least still has his younger fiancé to keep an eye on him – a reminder to us all to check-in on older, vulnerable people at this time.

pjimage(1) L-R: Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain.

Johnson had hoped his premiership would be compared to his hero Winston Churchill, but comparisons are now instead being made with Neville Chamberlain, who should have acted much sooner to tackle the Nazi threat.

In fact, I think this is grossly unfair to Chamberlain: while Chamberlain cowered in the face of German aggression, Johnson acted as though this virus were not a threat at all, posturing like a schoolboy before inevitably locking himself in his room as fatalities surged.

His streak of mayoral, referendum and general election triumphs now seem abstract.Like so much else pre Covid-19, they seem to belong to a different time, a different reality. Behold England’s King Midas – all he touched turned to gold, but must now be disinfected.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer.

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Peter Flanagan  / Irish comedian and writer

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