By Chris Sweeney, author who has written for various UK magazines and newspapers, including The Times, The Sun and The Daily Record.
Having been taken into intensive care and possibly fighting for his life, Boris Johnson has seen his popularity boosted by Britain’s love of the underdog.
Politics operates in a shadowy sphere dominated by image and perception. Boris Johnson being admitted to intensive care has plunged us even further into that swamp.
While no decent person wishes harm – let alone death – on Britain’s PM, some of his spin doctors must feel they are stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Boris did win the last election in December, but he is far from a uniting figure. Huge swathes of the country hate him and what he represents.
Only a few months ago, rapper Dave performed a new verse of his hit ‘Black’ live on national TV to many millions at the biggest event in the UK music industry calendar, the Brits. He rapped “the truth is our prime minister’s a real racist,” and was lauded for it.
Major cities in the UK – such as London, Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff – didn’t vote for Boris.
Whatever you think of his handling of Brexit, he did claim he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for an extension on October 31, 2019, before in fact doing that exact thing.
What’s more important is that the man who spearheaded the campaign to leave didn’t decide which way to go until the night before declaring it publicly. He went as far as writing two newspaper columns, arguing for and against the matter, and then chose which one to publish when he did opt to back Brexit.
This doesn’t project an image of a man of steadfast convictions or any deep-rooted beliefs.
A large chunk of the British population view him as playing games, treating the UK’s future as some kind of competition between him and his upper-class pals to laugh about over cigars and brandy. There’s no feeling of him being a leader or really getting to grips with things, particularly in an extreme crisis like this Covid-19 pandemic.
That was validated by the Queen’s subtle but cutting non-mention of Boris or his government during her surprise video message to the world. “We will succeed,” she said, but her silence on BoJo spoke volumes.
Boris isn’t a man of the people.
He hasn’t ever confirmed a basic fact like how many children he has – even Wikipedia isn’t sure if it’s five or six. His given name isn’t even Boris – that’s his middle name.
So while no one would wish a virus on anyone, Covid-19 has given him an image boost that he was incapable of giving himself.
A comparison can be drawn to Michael Jackson, whose image was at an all-time low before his death. Of course, that was due to accusations of horrific crimes that torpedoed the glory years of ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad,’ and Boris Johnson is not linked to anything whatsoever like that – but the optics curve is similar.
After he died in 2009, Jackson sold 13.3 million albums in the next five years – compared to only 3.9 million in the same time period prior. He was having well-known money problems, but his estate hoovered up $1 billion in the 12 months following his death, and Sony even paid $250 million for the rights to distribute his recordings for seven years in 2018.
MJ died without being found guilty in a court of law of anything, and the mud will never stick fully.
BoJo is experiencing the exact same bounce.
For someone who’s perceived as being from that cozy, insular world of going to school at Eton and then studying at Oxford, he’s now in the trenches with everyone else like truck drivers and toilet cleaners.
Well-known figures have flooded social media over the last few hours, haranguing anyone who has wished ill on Boris – whereas over the last few weeks, the PM has been eviscerated with hardly anyone bothering to stick up for him.
Britons love an underdog and Boris is now in that category, for the first time ever in his privileged life. He’s lying on a bed in London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital in desperate need of the help of doctors and nurses, the sort of people he would not normally encounter apart from at a photo call.
Boris’ great hero Winston Churchill is canonized for his leadership during World War II and his iconic “we shall fight them on the beaches” address. That has whitewashed away his colonial tyranny and racism – Churchill once personally boasted of shooting three Sudanese, calling them “savages.”
As perverse as it sounds, Covid-19 is giving Boris the things he can’t give himself – humanity, reliability and popularity.
If, as everyone hopes, he comes out of intensive care in fine fettle, he’ll be leading a much more sympathetic nation who might just be willing to trust and listen to him more, simply because he caught Covid-19.
What a weird proposition that is.