Eighteen months ago, I wrote a column for this magazine saying I regretted having been such a Boris enthusiast for the past 40 years. As a lockdown sceptic, I was disillusioned by his role in the greatest interference in personal liberty in our history. Where was the mischievous, freedom-loving, Falstaffian character I’d grown to love? Oliver Hardy had turned into Oliver Cromwell.
Mercifully, Roundhead Boris was a temporary aberration. Indeed, the furrowed-browed, finger-wagging Prime Minister of those endless Downing Street press briefings turned out to be just another act in the Covid pantomime, with the Boris of old making whoopee behind the scenes. I am probably one of the few people in the country who was delighted to discover that he didn’t take the ludicrous coronavirus regulations seriously, even if he is the head of the government that came up with them. I will only regard the forthcoming Sue Gray report as ‘devastating’ for Boris if he doesn’t leap from its pages as the raspberry-blowing leader of the up-all-night, hard-drinking Downing Street fast set.
I’m not being wholly facetious. His rule-breaking is a good reason for keeping him in office because it makes it politically impossible for him to impose another lockdown. How can Boris ask the public to observe any more of those ridiculous restrictions when he flagrantly ignored them himself? Even if there is another wave and the leaders of the NHS start waving their shrouds about on the BBC, he will have no choice but to stick with his ‘living with Covid’ strategy.
Another argument is that even though Boris initially went along with the lockdown madness he did return to his senses sooner than most. After lifting nearly all the restrictions on 19 July last year in the teeth of hysterical opposition, he resisted attempts to browbeat him into reimposing them. That, finally, was the leader I voted for – and where Boris led, other presidents and prime ministers followed. Living with Covid is now the default strategy of the western world and China’s draconian, lock-them-down approach in Shanghai is seen as a grotesque overreaction instead of a blueprint. Boris isn’t quite up there with Florida governor Ron DeSantis in the pantheon of pandemic heroes, but he’s been better than 95 per cent of his peers.
Then there’s the ‘get Brexit done’ argument. Some members of the parliamentary party held their noses and voted for Boris as leader because they believed he was the only candidate capable of extracting us from the tentacles of the EU – and now think we should ditch him because he’s served that purpose. But the point is, we haven’t completely disentangled ourselves from Brussels yet. There’s still the pesky Northern Ireland protocol. Do we really want a de facto customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in perpetuity? If the answer is no, who do you think is more likely to get rid of it? Jeremy Hunt?
There’s also the Ukraine argument. Even Boris’s most ardent critics have to grudgingly admit he’s had a good war. From the moment hostilities broke out, he’s been the most steadfast backer of Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukraine armed forces of all the leaders in the G7, including Joe Biden. When Ukrainian infantry fire anti-tank missiles at the advancing Russian armoured vehicles they cry ‘God Save the Queen’ not ‘Hail to the Chief’, a reference to the fact that Britain has supplied them with this game-changing weaponry. Ben Wallace, of course, deserves a great deal of credit, but Boris understood immediately that there’s more at stake in this conflict than the future of Ukraine, important though that is. This is an attack on the values of western civilisation and if Ukraine loses, it will likely mean the emergence of a new axis of evil stretching from Russia to China. Boris may have wobbled during the first major test of his premiership, but he gets an alpha double plus for his performance during the second.
Finally, I don’t think we should overlook the fact that he led his party to its largest parliamentary majority since 1987. The argument is not that if he can win one general election he can do it again – although I suspect he could – but that having done so well he’s entitled to the benefit of the doubt, particularly from those MPs who wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him.
Look, I’m not going to pretend he isn’t a deeply flawed character. But who do you think would be better? Ultimately, the best argument for Boris is the same as Churchill’s argument for democracy: he’s the worst politician to be running the country, except for all the others.
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