In June 2021, the American magazine the Atlantic ran a long and admiring profile of Boris Johnson. “To him,” wrote the author, “the point of politics – and life – is not to squabble over facts; it’s to offer people a story they can believe in.” Johnson himself made the same point, in rather more elegant language: “People live by narrative. Human beings are creatures of the imagination.”
Back then, those words were intended to capture Johnson’s talent for an unorthodox kind of political communication, and explain his success. But in early 2022 they sound more like an encapsulation of the reasons for his inevitable demise. The simple tale of the people who made the rules arrogantly breaking them is now immeasurably more powerful than any of the narratives he offers in his defence. To say that people tell stories, moreover, is often to associate them with lies, and so it has proved. Johnson’s evasions and untruths now extend into the distance; what he repeatedly – and desperately – said about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile is only the latest example.
There is one more sense in which his talent for storytelling has deserted him. “Partygate” has cost him credibility and popularity, but it has also had another result that has been overlooked. Johnson’s apparently awful hypocrisy means he can no longer talk about a story all of us have lived through, and which has still not been satisfactorily told: that of the pandemic, the awful suffering and sacrifices it entailed, and what that experience says about us collectively and individually.
That is a very strange position for a prime minister to be in. Imagine if next week there was a national Covid memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. The Queen would attend and give a reading; past premiers would solemnly take their seats alongside doctors, nurses and other NHS workers. If Johnson was still in office, it would be unusual if he did not speak. But given his indelible association with rule-breaking and recklessness, could he do it? Perhaps his brass neck would lead him to carry on as if nothing had happened, but the moment would be so awkward that it would threaten to render the whole occasion ludicrous.
Whatever the weekend’s chatter about a new Downing Street operation and a “return to Tory values”, all he seems to have left is mindless boosterism and a set of props. He puts on hard hats and makes endless claims about the UK’s economic strengths, but they sound increasingly crass; all those habitual boasts about the rollout of vaccines – symbolised by his seemingly daily visits to hospitals – suggest he’s claiming credit for other people’s efforts. He cannot weave a tale about the privations of the pandemic giving way to the benefits of Brexit or the glories of “levelling up”, because both are being revealed as fantasies.
Not surprisingly, the current public mood feels almost numb: when all plan B restrictions in England were lifted on 27 January, it was telling that rather than hype about another “freedom day”, there was an overwhelming sense of everything remaining tense and uncertain – a feeling that the spiralling cost of living and evidence of a national mental health crisis are only making things worse.
Johnson has promised a “UK commission on Covid commemoration” and a “fitting and permanent” official national Covid memorial, but hardly any details have materialised. Meanwhile, answering the need for a story about what we have all experienced, people and places are beginning to collectively mark the pandemic – both the lives that were lost and the shared spirit that got us through it. Commemorative spaces and artworks are being unveiled all over the country. In London there is the national Covid memorial wall, whose spontaneous origins make it feel all the more authentic and human. The Welsh government is planting two commemorative woodlands. Scotland has a government-funded project called Remembering Together, intended to create occasions and spaces for remembrance, and honour how the country’s communities “continue to come together during the most difficult times”.
As Johnson flounders, other politicians have come up with their own versions of that basic narrative – as happened last week, when Starmer responded to Sue Gray’s “update”. He spoke about people who followed the rules and restrictions now being consumed by “rage, by grief and even by guilt”, and the need for them to “feel pride in themselves and their country, because by abiding by those rules they have saved the lives of people they will probably never meet”.
But on the political right, the narrative vacuum Johnson has left is being filled by stories that feel toxic and dangerous. In some Tory circles, any idea of a dutiful public making sacrifices for the common good is at risk of being replaced by something very different: the belief that lockdowns and restrictions were simply a failed experiment, and what motivated people to follow what the Conservative backbencher Steve Baker recently called “minute restrictions on their freedom” was not a willing spirit of collective sacrifice, but a state that had decided “to bully, to shame and to terrify them”. On the wilder fringes of the internet, similar ideas are expressed by the irate keyboard warriors who insist that those of us who supported Covid rules were dupes and “bedwetters”.
Johnson’s endless disgrace will only fuel those stories. We already know that around £14bn of public money was wasted on fraudulent Covid loan claims and unused personal protective equipment. The apparently imminent public inquiry into Britain’s experience of the pandemic will doubtless unearth more evidence of such misrule and incompetence. As people’s fury about Downing Street parties festers, these things may yet be the perfect raw material for a grimly familiar tale that would perfectly suit Nigel Farage and his ilk: the idea that the pandemic really boiled down to yet another betrayal of the people by a rotten elite, and that most of the restrictions and rules were never really necessary in the first place. Its effects could go well beyond politics, into people’s basic wellbeing: if this story catches on, it may only deepen the sense of torment and confusion that has already pushed many people over the psychological edge.
These are the dangers that the nodding-dog Tory supporters of a failed prime minister need to wake up to. People really do live by narratives, and in times of collective crisis those who rule us need to give us at least some sense of where we have been, where we might be going, and what everything means. Johnson’s serial stupidities mean he is simply unable to do that: if the great storyteller has no stories, his own tale has surely reached its end.