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Sunday, 16 June 2024
Boris’s finest hour?
Ian Black

In these extraordinary times the British prime minister Boris Johnson now convenes a daily press conference in 10 Downing Street in order to keep the public up-to-date with the latest emergency measures for tackling the Corona virus pandemic. Boris’s finest hour

Flanked by scientific and medical advisers, the Conservative leader has announced a series of unprecedented and far-reaching steps - ranging from spending hundreds of billions of pounds of government money to prevent firms from sacking their employees to ordering the closure of pubs, restaurants, cafes, gyms and leisure centers across the UK.

“I must level with you,” Johnson said on March 12. “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” And on March 20, the day the news became unimaginably worse – when schools were finally ordered closed - he declared: “We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.”

It is striking to hear the language he is using. But there is a clue: five years ago Johnson published a book about his – and countless other people’s - second world war hero, Winston Churchill, who oversaw the determination and sacrifices it took to defeat Nazi Germany from 1940-1945. So will this period be – as it was for Churchill 80 years ago – Boris’s “finest hour?”

Commentators have been having a field day poking fun at Johnson’s tone and delivery. Of course it is hard to remember now in the shadow of this infinitely greater crisis, but the prime minister is personally blamed by critics for having supported the Brexit referendum of June 2016 and led the country out of the European Union on January 31st.

His simple and catchy slogan - “Get Brexit done!” – is widely recognized as having secured the Conservatives the healthy majority they won in last December’s general election, along with the disarray and incompetence of the Labour opposition. Many people – even those who voted to remain in the EU - were simply fed up with the prolonged impasse and wanted to move on. Boris’s finest hour

But Boris’s backing for Brexit remains deeply toxic: one of the most memorable elements of that bitterly divisive period was a false promise, emblazoned on the side of buses, that the revered National Health Service (NHS) would benefit from the millions of pounds saved by Britain leaving the EU.

So it was a clever if obvious line for Guardian columnist Marina Hyde to write that “when Johnson says we’ll turn the tide in 12 weeks, it’s just another line for the side of a bus.” Others have referenced a familiar historical saying – dating back to the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914 – that “it’ll all be over by Christmas.”

Covid-19 presents an unprecedented peacetime challenge, nationally as well as globally. It is simultaneously a grave health emergency and a catastrophic economic one. Johnson’s government has been widely lambasted for failing to understand its dimensions and above all being slow to adopt the stringent measures adopted by other European countries.

Even now the UK has not anchored government decisions in emergency legislation allowing it to punish people who ignore official advice about social distancing. The fear is that Britain – and especially London – may be heading for the death levels so far suffered only by Italy, which has now outstripped China as suffering the deadliest losses inflicted by Corona.

Even colleagues and allies have questioned Johnson’s decisions. Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary, described the prime minister’s approach as “surprising and concerning” and worried in a BBC interview that the government had not moved more decisively and quickly. Another critic, a former public health director, branded the government’s response "cowardly" and accused the prime minister of "channeling Churchill."

It is clear that a major element of concern is about the growing burden on the NHS, which had already been weakened by years of austerity measures in force since the financial crash of 2008. Doctors and nurses are complaining anxiously about the lack of emergency protective equipment and ventilators as they are forced to deal with the pandemic. Boris’s finest hour

Prospects for the immediate future look grim: new legislation includes giving local and national authorities the power to force others to supply information about their capacity to deal with “transportation, storage or disposal of dead bodies.”

In line with its “wartime” narrative the government has pledged repeatedly to do “whatever it takes” to handle the escalating crisis and “turn the tide.” But Johnson will continue to be closely scrutinized to ensure that he is taking it sufficiently seriously – and not simply blathering about the distant past and conjuring up nostalgia by invoking the “Blitz spirit.”

“It was our good fortune that Churchill found his greatness at his country’s moment of supreme peril,” wrote the historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft. “It is our misfortune that the country is now in the hands of the incoherent, haunted, haggard figure, so obviously and utterly out of his depth, that we see daily: at a tragic time, history repeated as unfunny farce.”

Ian is a former Middle East editor, diplomatic editor and European editor for the Guardian newspaper. In recent years he has reported and commented extensively on the Arab uprisings and their aftermath in Syria, Libya and Egypt, along with frequent visits to Iran, the Gulf and across the MENA region. His latest book, a new history of the Palestine–Israel conflict, was published in 2017 to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. He has an MA in history and social and political science from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in government from LSE. Ian has written for the Economist, the Washington Post and many other publications, and is a regular commentator on TV and radio on Middle Eastern and international affairs. He wrote the introduction to The Arab Spring: Revolution, Rebellion and a New World Order (Guardian Books, 2012); Israel's Secret Wars (Grove Press, 1991), Zionism and the Arabs, 1936–1939 (Taylor & Francis, 1986, 2015); and contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Macmillan Library Reference, 2004). His most recent book is Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 (Allen Lane, 2017). levant