May 1, 2020

The news that our Prime Minister has become a father again is the second piece of personal good news he has had in a month. And once again, his opponents have shown that they cannot stand it — or even credit it — when something good happens to him.

The first piece of unalloyedly positive coverage he received came when he emerged from hospital on Easter Sunday. It was an exceptionally good news story — for the country as well as his family.

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So much so, that his disgruntled opponents could not help but see dastardly practices at work. Chris Lockwood of The Economist managed to make a great virtual fool of himself by tweeting out that the Prime Minister’ appearance after emerging from hospital was “not someone who was at death’s door a few days ago”.

There seemed, according to the magazine’s Europe Editor (who would of course have no reason to hold a grudge against Boris Johnson) to be “something incredibly fishy about the whole business”. Lockwood subsequently backtracked from this claim, under a certain amount of virtual pressure and presumably some amount of actual, real-life pressure, from the higher-ups at his publication.

In a similar vein, The Guardian has found it hard to see anything especially positive in the announcement of Carrie Symonds giving birth to a baby boy. Ordinarily, it should be an easy one: “Congratulations to the happy couple on the birth of their child.” Even political opponents used to be able to agree on that sort of line. Not this time at The Guardian, where Martin Kettle announced in a sub-heading so gritted that you worried for his teeth: “It would require a heart of stone not to be moved by such a story of illness and new life. But this is no apolitical birth.”

As a metaphor for Boris Johnson’s view of Britain, it was, Kettle claimed in his confused argument, “audacious”. “The operation in Downing Street is still a lot smarter than many would like to see it” he warned. And amid the sound of his teeth finally giving in under the pressure, Kettle ground out the sentence, “Let’s acknowledge, if nothing else, that today’s announcement was a brilliantly executed piece of political tradecraft.”

It is understandable that Johnson’s opponents keep reacting like this; there is, of course, a reason. They see him as a political chancer who has got through life by being lucky and that if it were not for this, then he would have been exposed by now as a charlatan and a fraud whose copy would not be deemed printable in such august publications as The Guardian or Economist. Time and again his journalist critics ignore the fact that their estimation of the Prime Minister is out of kilter with the public’s.

And of course there is an inbuilt reason why that might be the case. Which is that Boris Johnson used to be one of them, soared exceptionally high in journalism, earned more than most journalists can ever dream of and then chose to leave the trade and move on to higher office. Some people would spend a life in therapy trying to forgive success and abandonment like that.

But it means that such journalists ignore the attributes of the Prime Minister which are particularly attractive and might be exceptionally well-suited to the times we are now in.

Good and bad things happen to all of us in our lives. We all have a chance daily to store up resentment or positivity. And while the storing up of positive sentiment may be exceptionally hard on occasion, in politics – especially during times of political and economic turbulence – it is crucial.  Despondency is not a great look in leadership.

The moment when I saw that there was an unusual type of political leadership in the Prime Minister was back when he was Mayor of London. In 2011, rioting had just broken out in London which spread out across the country. For several nights, Londoners saw the breakdown of law and order as the police failed to intervene and the capital looked very close to chaos. There were all sorts of ways for people in positions of political power to respond to that event, but the most memorable to me came the morning after the rioting began.

As other dour-faced politicians made their pronouncements and commentators predicted the end of civilisation, Boris Johnson appeared in London with a group of citizen volunteers. Armed with a broom he encouraged Londoners to help him clear up the city. It was the sort of thing that would have occurred to almost no other politician — bunkered down as they would be at such a time. But it showed a number of things about Johnson, most important of which was that he continued to have the capacity to make people feel good about things and take part in improving their collective lot, even at the direst moments.

It was one of his most serious demonstrations of political nouse, but it is one which comes from his general character. When Boris managed to turn an ‘unlucky’ incident with a zip wire into something rather joyful and very human, the same unusual quality came across to the public and seemed to bypass many of his journalist critics. It wasn’t hard to see even then that he was different from other political beasts. After all, imagine if Gordon Brown or Theresa May had attempted to go on a zipwire and got stuck half way along it? How would the pictures of them dangling in mid-air have gone down?

Would Gordon Brown have showed a sunny disposition on this occasion? Would he have joked with the crowd about lending him a rope to get down? Would Theresa May have engaged in repartee and badinage? Or might both have hung there fuming at their personal humiliation, wondering who had put them up to this and visibly mulling over who to blame for the lack of zipwire forward-planning?

The misfortune for Boris Johnson’s opponents is not that everything he does is stage-managed, the result of conspiracy or part of some grand political masterplan. The thing they fail to recognise is the fact that whether personal or global problems come bouncing along at him, Johnson reacts to them, as he does to everything in his life, with a generally sunny and upbeat disposition. And whether bad or good things happen to him — hospitalisation or fatherhood — his response to them is not some elaborate ruse or spin.

You cannot fake Johnson’s sort of attitude to life. The Prime Minister’s disposition is such that it allows bad things to bounce off him, and the good things make most reasonable people happy along with him. It’s no wonder the Prime Minister’s opponents feel the stars lining up against them at times. But the fault is in their stars, not his.