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Get well soon, Prime Minister

May 10th, 2020

Six words brought down a Prime Minister: “Don’t you think she looks tired?” Alright, she was the entirely fictional Prime Minister Harriet Jones in Doctor Who, but the point is a good one.

Boris Johnson does not need the interference of a Time Lord for the public to be questioning his health. He looks terrible. For many years, he has traded off looking rumpled. He now looks dishevelled and haunted.

Poor man. He succumbed to exactly the virus from which he was supposed to be trying to protect all of us.

Even then, the Prime Minister did not take the threat seriously. He stayed in harness, even allowing himself to be pictured ritually clapping the NHS one Thursday evening. Viruses, however, are no respecters of persons and by working when he should have been resting, he may well have made himself iller. As we now know, he was rushed to hospital, then to intensive care.

Fortunately, he has made a recovery. Evidently it is nothing like a full recovery yet. The usual Frankie Howerd-like fluency of apparent dithering that is tightly scripted has been replaced by stumbling and hesitancy.

If he were doing a normal job, any decent boss would be telling him to stay home and rest up until he felt much better. It’s hard to imagine that he’s making decisions with a cool head and clear thinking.

Being Prime Minister is not a normal job. He doesn’t have an employer and he doesn’t have an employment contract. He doesn’t even have a job description. Most of the few statutory references to the role of Prime Minister are in setting his pay, pension and the perks of the job (like Chequers). So no one can force him back to the desk and no one can stop him from coming back to work before he is fit to work.

Why has Boris Johnson rushed back to work so quickly? He’s hardly shown much of a work ethic before now. So we might presume that there are one or more big strategic decisions that need to be taken where he (or those around him) believes his input will be decisive.

What might those decisions relate to? They may not be visible. One subject, however, has been the subject of considerable debate in the rightwing press – when lockdown is to end. A casual glance at the Sun, the Mail and, especially, the Telegraph will show you that forces of conservatism are pressing to lift up the shutters.

If Buzzfeed is right, the unnamed politicians arguing for this, supposedly a majority in the Cabinet and the Parliamentary Conservative party, were opposed by Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson himself.  Buzzfeed confusingly dubs those who argue for fewer restrictions even though more people will die as a result “hawks” and those who argue for greater restrictions with expensively necessary financial support “doves”. “Snakes” and “ladders” would be closer to the mark.

This battle is manifesting itself in the new guidelines we’re getting.  “Stay home” is being replaced with “stay alert”. This new vacuous message has received a widespread panning and the government has hurriedly have to issue glosses to the word “alert” that do not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The vacuousness of the slogan is not the problem, however. The problem is the vacuum in the policy. The government has simply not made up its mind what it expects of its citizens. Clearly there has been a shift from “stay home”.  But to what? Are we to resume any social activities, and if so what?  How much inessential work can be resumed? Can married men in their 50s start visiting their mistresses again?

This debate continues, and now the risk of serious public confusion is substantial. If this is going to be sorted out, the Prime Minister needs to be able to use his political heft to settle it. For that, he needs to be at full strength. So rest up, Prime Minister. A nation’s health as well as your own depends on it.

Alastair Meeks