The Spectator's Notes

The problems of a sick prime minister

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

It is good of President Trump to offer Boris Johnson his best wishes and the best American pharmaceuticals (though no doubt Jeremy Corbyn would see this as a prelude to American takeover of the National Health Service). During the second world war, on Boxing Day 1941, Churchill had a minor heart attack after trying too hard to force open a window while staying at the White House. He had addressed the joint Houses of Congress earlier that day. Churchill’s doctor, Moran, did not inform President Roosevelt. In February 1943, however, when he knew Churchill had pneumonia, Roosevelt wrote to him: ‘Please, please, for the sake of the world, don’t overdo these days. You must remember that it takes about a month of occasional let-ups to get back your full strength. Tell Mrs Churchill that when I was laid up I was a thoroughly model patient, and that I hope you will live down the reputation in our Press of having been the “world’s worst patient”.’ Good advice for Boris, a similarly impatient patient. The problems of a sick prime minister are obvious, but his situation evokes sympathy and solidarity. In the strange drama of leadership, there is a power in bearing the woes of all. In religious form, this is the role of the suffering servant in Isaiah (Chapter 53), which Christians recall this week on Good Friday.

I now have several friends who have caught the virus. Some barely noticed; some nearly died. In the latter category is Nicholas Coleridge, doyen of the world of glossy magazines. He was taken to hospital in Worcester delirious (‘I got loonier and loonier’) and stayed for 12 days. A doctor gravely warned his wife Georgia, who also had it, of ‘the possibility of his demise’. The worst aspects, he tells me, are its speed, feeling very hot or very cold, and that ‘something invasive and dirty is finding its way into all parts of your body’. There is also the fear that it lingers. Nick received excellent medical treatment, and a lovely letter from the Prince of Wales. His oddest hospital experience was that when he asked nurses for a jigsaw puzzle, no one knew what that was.

Another friend, Prue Penn, has the illness as I write. Although she is 93, she loves life; so when she texted me last week and said ‘I think I have had enough’, I felt chilled. Yet the fact she was still texting gave some hope. Prue enjoys playing me off against the writer William Shawcross as we compete for her favour, so I was encouraged to receive a further text which said: ‘Shawcross is on the Today prog tomorrow. Will you shoot him down?’ Her current self-assessment, almost a fortnight in, is that she feels ‘bloody awful and bloody tired’. On Sunday night, Prue watched the woman who has been her friend all her life broadcast to the nation from Windsor Castle. She remembers hearing her first broadcast 80 years ago, with Princess Margaret at her side, directed at children separated from their parents by war. I think the broadcasts helped her then and help her now.

The Times obituary of Robert Armstrong, the former cabinet secretary, made no mention of his role in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Imagine an obituary of Edward Heath which omitted Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. The AIA was, in Robert’s own view, his greatest single achievement. However, the total — as opposed to single — achievement of a cabinet secretary is the accumulation of successes almost unseen — the negotiations transacted, the right people promoted, the wrong ones stopped, the prime minister assisted, government carried on. Robert Armstrong was uniquely subtle in these skills. He told me about his dealings with Mrs Thatcher, whom he served for eight years. They had little affinity, but much mutual respect. Not long after he became cabinet secretary, she objected to a memorandum he had sent her:

After five minutes or so I heard myself say: ‘No, Prime Minister, you’re wrong.’ As I said it, I wondered whether that was something I ought not to have said to the Prime Minister, remembering the rebuke of Queen Elizabeth I to Robert Cecil: ‘Is “must” a word to be used to princes?’ But Margaret stopped at once, and said: ‘Why do you say I am wrong, Robert?’ Having gone so far, I told her… She listened without interrupting, and then, when I had finished, she said: ‘You’re right, Robert; I was wrong.’ I think that this episode was very good for our relationship and went far to establish mutual trust.

His boldness had its limits, however: ‘I did not risk making jokes: I could never feel sufficiently sure that she would find them funny.’

One would-be key worker I know is grounded by Covid-19. Clive Dytor has had an unusual career. At Cambridge with me in the late 1970s, he was a hard-drinking Welsh rugby player. The next I heard he had won the MC capturing an Argentine-held hill in the Falklands war: ‘I assaulted Two Sisters and was decorated for it.’ Then he became an Anglican clergyman, chaplain of Tonbridge School. In 1994, however, he renounced his Anglican orders, became a Catholic, and was later made headmaster of the Oratory School near Reading. Now retired, Clive is a deacon in Oxfordshire. Despite being married, he is about to become a Catholic priest. This is allowed, under the exemption made for married Anglican convert clergy, though it has taken him a quarter of a century to discover his vocation. St John Henry Newman is his inspiration (for priesthood, not marriage). His wife Sarah is in favour: ‘For the first time in 25 years,’ she observes as he undergoes training, ‘you’re actually listening.’ He has found the preparation chastening. ‘The rector told me, “You’re looking for affirmation all the time. You must steel yourself against this.”’ Now Clive’s vocation is being tested in a surprising way. He is supposed to be ordained in July, but the virus will almost certainly postpone the ceremony. Think of him at home this Easter, unable to minister to the flock of which he is deacon, or take the sacrament he hopes soon to bestow.

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