Boris Johnson’s baby and brush with coronavirus aren’t going to magically make him a new man
Sources claim Johnson’s experiences have given him a newfound affection for the NHS. They forget that the PM was already wedded to the health service out of electoral necessity
According to an anonymous cabinet minister, “There is no doubt it has changed him.” The minister was talking about Boris Johnson’s “near-death experience”, but now Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, has added the birth of his son to the causes of the prime minister’s possible transformation, tweeting: “Having babies change us. Near-death experiences change us...So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?” I’m filing this one under Questions To Which The Answer Is No.
I am sure Johnson is sincerely grateful to the staff at St Thomas’s who saw him through what must have been a scary encounter with the “invisible mugger”. No one goes into intensive care for trivial reasons – though they are sometimes admitted as a precaution, and Johnson never needed mechanical assistance with his breathing. As brushes with death go, it was at a reasonable distance – at least two metres. Nevertheless, Boris’s illness may have caused him to consider his own mortality. Did it transform him into a more compassionate person, or one more committed to the principles of the NHS? I doubt it.
The anonymous cabinet minister suggested that Boris “now has an emotional connection to the NHS” he didn’t before. Like David Cameron, whose son Ivan died at the age of six in 2009, Johnson can now say, as he did on Monday, “I can tell you from personal experience…”
But both Johnson and Cameron were already wedded to the NHS out of electoral necessity. No modern leader can hope to defy the national religion, and Conservatives have to work twice as hard to show that they are true believers. Johnson has just fought a general election, after all, on a promise of 50,000 more nurses, 6,000 more doctors and 50 million more GP appointments annually.
As for having a baby, that does change people, a fact it is particularly important for men to acknowledge. But it is not as if Johnson hasn’t had children before, and to assume that either of his significant personal events has transformed wild Prince Hal into a wise and noble national leader is a bit much. If anything, Johnson is King Lear: “They told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.” He thought he was all-powerful, but even he wasn’t immune to the plague. If Johnson is changed by anything, it will be having dealt with the coronavirus pandemic at a national level.
We can call his recent personal experiences life-changing, and they are, but they are unlikely to transform him into a different kind of leader.