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Boris Johnsons’ illness made him more powerful

 


A strange thing happened last week. Many British voters have discovered that they are much more attached to Boris Johnson than they thought. Since Brexit, the British Prime Minister has been a divisive figure, but his fight with Covid-19 has left all his enemies, except his most partisan, shocked, frightened and desperate to hear news of the recovery. A former cabinet colleague observed, “It reminded people of why they loved him when he was mayor of London.”

At times like this, the country would be afraid of any leader, but Mr. Johnson’s vitality made his death brush more shocking. On news of his recovery, a newspaper appeared to forget the nearly 1,000 dead that day, stating on the front page: “is really a Good Friday“.

Mr. Johnson was already a powerful Prime Minister with a particularly royal building around him – a court of close associates on Downing Street and a largely untested cabinet. Even so, before he got sick, it was possible to see him politically wiped out by the crisis, especially on the late response and early errors.

In the midst of confusion and changes in strategy, the Conservatives were struck by the confident performance of Chancellor Rishi Sunak. But Mr. Johnson’s illness increased his authority. He may have been recovering for some time, but no one doubts now where the power resides.

Critics will rightly question his handling of the crisis. The death toll in the UK could become the highest in Europe and the availability of protective clothing for health workers is a problem. But his personal crisis has restored his political capital and shown the absence of successors in his league when it comes to shaping public opinion.

His gift for communication and politics had long brought him closer to voters than opponents would admit. The emotional film released shortly after his departure from the hospital was superbly presented. Since the Brexit campaign, he has teamed up with the National Health Service. Now, with sincere praise for the organization that “saved my life,” a conservative leader has made himself a high priest of the institution, described as the national religion of the United Kingdom.

It is true that even the political skills of Winston Churchill counted little for the elections after the Second World War. But Mr. Johnson has more than four years before he needs to deal with voters. The facts of the crisis may ultimately overcome the sentiment but, if scapegoats are needed, it is unlikely to be among them. His courtiers are already jostling to blame the first mistakes, in part also to justify Whitehall’s desire for reform.

This moment elevates him to a higher pantheon of leaders; those who enjoy a direct relationship with the public and who seem to exist in a position withdraw from their cabinet, presiding over ministers who call for tenders. The failures will be all theirs; sound success. More of this “first among its peers” nonsense.

Mr. Johnson has worn many disguises during his career. The political buffoon, the globalist and socially liberal mayor, the ardent Brexiter, the romantic populist, the British Gaullist and the conservative leader run up against the antecedents of his own party. After the bitterness of Brexit, he has the chance to recreate himself if he wishes.

How could he use this new status? We may not know it, but there are solid bets. To divert the blame from the shortages caused by austerity, it will dump resources on the NHS and other services, including social care. A mortgaged health tax, which the Treasury has long resisted, may finally find its time. He will defend British resilience in areas that have proven to be crucial, including pharmaceuticals, life sciences and medical supplies.

While focusing on Britain’s return to business, he will try to weave a story of a new social contract – perhaps by correcting some of the inequalities most exposed by the crisis. But it will seek to exploit the concept of national collective effort to relieve the pain of the long economic recovery. If, as many wish, it should prolong the transition to Brexit, it will now be seen not as a recognition of reality but as a political act.

Another area of ​​readjustment could be immigration, an issue on which Mr. Johnson is instinctively more liberal than some of his allies. He will not abandon his points-based plan. But the recognition of the NHS and social workers abroad, and the disproportionate number of deaths among those of immigrant origin, gives it the opportunity to soften the tone and erase its most pernicious aspects.

A crisis that could have ruined Mr. Johnson seems ready, by the misfortune of a serious illness, to have strengthened him. Its original program has been abandoned, but, as it foresees the reconstruction that must follow, its link with the public is deeper than ever.

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