A prime minister who dreamt of being a new Churchill is having nightmares about Cromwell instead. Indeed, such is the strangeness of pandemic politics that last week, Boris Johnson was practically demanding to be compared to Old Ironsides. “I don’t think there has been anything like it since Cromwell’s time,” Johnson said last Wednesday of the Covid rules he promised faithfully to stand by during the Christmas period.
Perhaps the only person who appeared surprised when Johnson, less than 72 hours later, scrapped those rules was the man himself; the look of bafflement on his face as he announced that he was indeed cancelling Christmas suggests that, like many politicians, he himself may actually believe the words he conjures up every time he finds himself in a tricky corner.
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But where does that cancellation leave the PM? Measured in his own terms, he has surely failed: he is now doing something he desperately did not want to do and had promised just days earlier not to do. Hence the barrage of brutal headlines, social media sniping and whispers about his future.
On the face of it, that might all seem justified. A politician who does something that will sadden and inconvenience many people cannot expect a good coverage — especially if that thing also hits the bottom line of many media groups that rely on consumer spending for their revenues. Nor can a leader who repeatedly sends his troops out to defend positions that he quickly abandons count on their loyalty forever.
Neither media nor Conservative parliamentary anger are small things, yet they also count for rather less than the views of the wider public. And my bet is that the public will ultimately forgive Boris Johnson for cancelling Christmas.
The British public are generally less political, more pragmatic and far more subtle than those of us who do and write political things for a living. While the SW1A bubble — Johnson included — may be consumed with binary choices between Cromwellian authoritarianism and Cavalier libertarianism, most voters judge governments by results and circumstances, and politicians by their intentions.
Start with the circumstances. For an awful lot of people, it is clear that the Government is facing extremely difficult problems to which there are no wholly good answers. Poll after poll shows that solid majorities of those surveyed are broadly supportive of restrictive policies that cause economic pain and personal sadness. That’s not because Britain is a nation of authoritarians. It’s because voters think that a pandemic that has killed 60,000 people requires unusual interventions.
Those interventions include changing our Christmas habits. Before that agonising retreat over the festive Covid amnesty, the same polls were consistently showing that a majority of people wanted the rules to be tighter. After the “cancellation”, YouGov found that two-thirds of voters approved of the decision.
Again, that’s not because the British hate Christmas and want to cancel it. It’s because they think that in a pandemic, their government ought to take action to reduce the number of people who end up dead.
Boris Johnson has now taken such action, albeit later than necessary and in a typically shambolic manner, dragging his feet, like any decent libertarian. What does that mean for him? Here again, I think the whispers of imminent doom are overdone. I think a lot of voters will still, just about, give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude, in terms, that the bloke is trying to do his best in bloody difficult circumstances. Johnson’s visible misery and exhaustion probably play quite well for him here too: the cognoscenti may regard him as unforgivably unserious, but a lot of people glancing at him making yet another grim announcement will likely see a man who looks like he’s taking the pandemic pretty seriously.
Of course, the suggestions I’ve just made would be strongly disputed in Westminster twitter-chambers, where everyone knows that Boris is a stranger to leadership and fidelity, that he’s the sort of shallow chancer who only tells people difficult truths when he has exhausted every other option first.
That being so, Westminster Twitter might want to ask more questions about why a party led by such a chancer, a governing party that has presided over dither, delay and death and which has now cancelled Christmas is set to finish the year with a polling average of just under 40%, essentially neck-and-neck with the Labour opposition.
For those of us who remember the days, so long ago, when David Cameron’s Conservatives didn’t dare to dream of 40%, it is all the more remarkable that this Conservative government, overseen by this PM, can be even remotely competitive in the polls. Put it another way: if the Tories aren’t a mile behind Labour in the nadir of a miserable pandemic, you have to wonder where public opinion will be in the summer of 2021 if the vaccination programme really has started to make life start to feel more or less “normal” again. If Christmas 2020 and the even bleaker midwinter that follows are as bad as it gets for Boris and his party, he will be uncorking a second bottle of the good stuff to go with his second turkey when Christmas is reinstated in 2021.
That “if” is key. Because while it’s right and proper to look past a lot of headlines and political froth over cancelling Christmas, that doesn’t mean that these dark days are cost-free for Johnson and his government.
While voters are fair-minded and pragmatic, their patience and generosity are finite. There is a very fine line that divides understandable mistakes made in difficult circumstances by people trying their best, and culpable cock-ups committed by a cluster of clowns.
The political history of the pandemic so far is that just enough voters will just about allow Boris Johnson’s government the benefit of the doubt when it comes to competence. That will likely just about hold true for a little longer. By cancelling Christmas, Boris has, eventually done the right thing, and may eventually get a little credit for that.
The same may well apply over the closure of Channel ports. While that’s obviously a dreadful and distressing thing, will voters really — as some sophisticated Tweeters now suggest — directly blame the PM for decisions other governments have made to control the spread of a new coronavirus variant from the UK? I have my doubts.
But if — some would say when — the impression properly takes hold that Johnson and his Government simply don’t know what they’re doing, that they’re just not up to the job, well, then the rest of this Parliament will feel very long indeed for the Conservative Party, and be potentially quite short for the PM. There are already angry calls for his resignation and a government of national unity. So sooner or later in the New Year, he’ll do what all PMs do so try to hang on to a sliver of that c-word: reshuffle his Cabinet, relaunch his government and brief journalists about “taking personal charge” of stuff. It might work; it might not. The outcome of that will matter more than this week’s bad headlines about a cancelled Christmas.
The Cromwell analogy is a good one, as Johnson’s own words show, but people looking into it for portents of Johnson’s doom might look more closely at dates. Puritans in Parliament banned Christmas in 1647. Oliver Cromwell ruled for another 11 years before dying in office.
And Cromwell’s regime didn’t fall because he allowed the Puritans to ban Christmas. It fell because his son and successor lacked the strength to grip and lead that regime, and provide the reassuringly stable government that the country wanted.
Boris Johnson has always wondered about his place in history. If posterity ends up recording him as another Oliver Cromwell, he’ll be doing OK.
It’s being Richard Cromwell he should be worried about.