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Boris Johnson Missed His Churchill Moment

The pandemic was Boris’s biggest test. He failed.

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(Shag 7799/Shutterstock)

Departing British prime minister Boris Johnson, seemingly unaware of the truism that sequels are never as good as the original, has throughout his career drawn not-so-subtle comparisons between himself and Winston Churchill. Instead of being treated like Churchill, he is leaving office hounded by the chastisement previously directed at Neville Chamberlain: “In the name of God, go.”

But this is only half the tragedy. Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street as a leader who had the chance for the Churchillian greatness to which he aspired, and missed it.

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This is not surprising; most politicians these days seem to flub their chances at true leadership. When the 9/11 attacks happened months into George Bush’s tenure, he was given the opportunity to be one of the greatest presidents in American history. He stepped into that role at first, uniting a frightened country and promising vengeance on the terrorists. Then he squandered his overwhelming national goodwill with a pointless and destructive war in Iraq.

Obama, Trump, Biden—each promised big things, and had flashes of glory and sometimes even sustained successes. But each, at decisive points, failed to rise to the challenges they faced. The details differ, but the broad strokes are the same. Boris Johnson only proves that the phenomenon is not uniquely American.

Although Johnson was first elected in 2019 on the promise to complete Brexit, his tenure was defined primarily by the pandemic. The immediate cause of his resignation was a sexual-misconduct scandal involving one of his underlings. However, the true cause of Johnson's ouster was undoubtedly “Partygate”—a series of unsurprising revelations that Johnson and his top lieutenants had, like politicians everywhere, repeatedly defied their own public-health restrictions.

Under Johnson, Britain had some of the harshest pandemic lockdowns in the developed world. The crazy thing, though, is that they almost didn’t. 

In those fatal few weeks of March 2020, Johnson’s government was much slower to impose all-consuming measures than most other European countries. When Johnson finally announced the nationwide lockdown on March 23, a CNN analyst asked, “What took Boris Johnson so long?” The reason, the analyst concluded, was that Johnson is “not naturally comfortable with removing anyone's personal liberties.” Throughout his long political career, Johnson had shown a libertarian streak and a rare tendency towards common sense. Like Trump, his instincts were correct.

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Johnson was ultimately inspired to change course by Britain’s Fauci, Dr. Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College London researcher who worked for the government until he was forced to resign for breaking lockdowns himself to sleep with his married mistress. Ferguson, in a hugely influential study published in March 2020, recommended “social distancing of the entire population” for 18 months or more until a vaccine was developed.

This was a solution pioneered by the People’s Republic of China, which at the time was unprecedented in Britain or any other Western nation. But Ferguson was itching to implement it, and he later marveled at how easy it had been to import Chinese policy: “[China is] a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could… If China had not done it, the year would have been very different.”

When Johnson’s idol, Winston Churchill, first came to power in 1940, France was in the process of falling to Nazi Germany. Most of the other great European powers had already fallen. For a time, Britain stood alone in the world, the sole defender of the West, with Churchill at its helm. Even when his own ministers urged him to accept Hitler’s peace offer, Churchill held firm to his convictions and chose to fight on.

This is the laudable mantle that Johnson has, all his life, aspired to shoulder. He faced just such a defining moment in March of 2020. The entire world had surrendered to the People’s Republic of China, adopting its totalitarian disease-control strategy, and unlike France or Poland in World War II, we surrendered without a shot being fired. If any man in the world was well-positioned to stand against this, it was the garrulous British renegade, Boris Johnson. 

Instead, the United Kingdom became a police state.

In March of 2021, 33-year-old Sarah Everard was raped and murdered in London by a police officer who, according to the New York Times, “conducted ‘a false arrest’ for breaching lockdown guidelines, to get Ms. Everard into his car.” A witness chose not to intervene because they thought Everard “had done something wrong.” This was Boris Johnson’s Britain, in which the social contract between citizen and government was violated so thoroughly that such a heinous abuse occurred in plain sight.

While Everard’s horrific fate is certainly an outlier, there is no doubt that, as in the United States, lockdowns ruined a great many lives in Britain. The economic and social costs of this colossal mistake will take decades to fully untangle. Worse, Johnson helped legitimize the principle of public-health-over-freedom that will surely rear its ugly head again and again, haunting us for decades to come. The proper disease metaphor here, perhaps, is herpes.

Johnson admired Churchill enough to write a book on him, praising the man’s eccentricity, his bombast, and his tendency to “behave with a death-defying self-belief, and go farther out on a limb than anyone else might have thought wise.” Ultimately, Johnson showed himself to have the bombast, but not the backbone.

One can imagine a world in which Boris Johnson had defiantly announced that he would not shut down the United Kingdom, and that people would be free to go about their business, taking whatever personal health precautions they saw fit. He might have even invoked that most British of slogans: “Keep calm and carry on.” Of course, he would have been very unpopular for a time. The media would have called him a lot of bad names. But it would have been the Churchillian act, to stand stolidly by the truth, to “never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense,” to “never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Instead, Johnson chose to “save lives.” 

Imagine if that logic had been applied by Britons to German bombs in 1940—that death should be avoided at all costs, even at the expense of one’s freedom and dignity. The end of that line of thinking would have been a quick surrender to Hitler.

The ignominious end of Johnson’s tenure as prime minister is an apt fable for the squandered potential of our times. Perhaps the next British prime minister, or American president, will be the one to surmount our challenges with the virtue and leonine valor sufficient to place them among the ranks of greats. But if the best predictor of the future is the past, we will have to wait a while longer.

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