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The Covid story of Britain is about selflessness and sacrifice. Boris Johnson cannot tell it

The American magazine, the Atlantic published a long profile of Boris Johnson in June 2021. The author wrote that "to him, the point of politics - or life - it's not to squabble about facts; it is to give people a story to believe in." Johnson made the same point in more elegant language, saying "People live by narrative." The imagination is what makes us human.

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The Covid story of Britain is about selflessness and sacrifice. Boris Johnson cannot tell it

These words were meant to capture Johnson's unorthodox style of political communication and his success back then. In early 2022, they seem more like a description of his eventual demise. He defends his story by telling the simple story of those who broke the rules. It is easy to say people tell stories and then associate them with lies. Johnson's lies and evasions are now well beyond Johnson's reach. What he repeatedly - but desperately - said regarding Jimmy Savile and Keir Starmer is just one example.

His talent for storytelling is gone in another way. Although "Partygate” has hurt him popularity and credibility, there has been another consequence that has been ignored. Johnson's apparent hypocrisy makes it impossible to talk about the story that all of us have experienced, but which is still not being told satisfactorily: the pandemic, the terrible suffering and sacrifices that it entails, and what this experience tells us about ourselves individually.

This is an unusual position for a prime Minister to be in. Imagine next week's Covid memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral in London. The Queen would be present and would give a reading. Past premiers would also take their seats along with doctors, nurses, and other NHS workers. It would be rare for Johnson to speak if he was still in office. However, Johnson's indelible associations with rule-breaking recklessness and rule-breaking make it difficult to believe he could do it. His brass neck might lead him to continue as if nothing had ever happened, but the moment will be so awkward that the entire occasion would seem absurd.

There was much talk over the weekend about a new Downing Street operation, and a " Return to Tory Values", but all he seemed to have left was mindless boosterism. While he puts on hard hats and makes endless claims regarding the UK's economic strength, they sound increasingly crass. His repeated boasts about vaccine rollout - which are symbolised by his seemingly daily hospital visits - suggests that he is claiming credit for others' efforts. Because both the horrors of the pandemic and the benefits of Brexit are being revealed as fantasies , he cannot tell a story about them.

It is not surprising that the public feels almost helpless. When all restrictions on plan B in England were lifted on January 27, it was clear that there was no hype about another "freedom day". Instead, there was an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and tension. There was also evidence of a national psychological crisis.

Johnson promised a UK commission on Covid commemoration and an "fitting, permanent" official national Covid monument. However, not much has been done. People and places are now beginning to tell the story of the pandemic, both the loss of lives and the spirit that helped us get through it. All over the country, artworks and commemorative spaces are being revealed. The national Covid wall is located in London. Its spontaneous origins make it feel more human and authentic. Two commemorative forests are being planted by the Welsh government. A government-funded project in Scotland is Remembering Together. It aims to create spaces and occasions for remembrance and to honour the country's "continued to come together even during the most difficult times".

Johnson's floundering is not unusual for other politicians to come up with their own versions. This was evident last week when Starmer replied Sue Gray's update. He talked about how people who follow the rules and restrictions are now consumed by "rage", "grief and even guilt", and that they need to "feel pride" in their country and themselves because they have saved lives of people they won't meet.

On the political right, however, the narrative gap Johnson left is being filled with stories that are toxic and dangerous. Any notion of a selfless public making sacrifices for common good is under threat in some Tory circles. This belief, which Steve Baker recently described as "minute restrictions on freedom", was not motivated by a willingness spirit to collective sacrifice. It was a state that decided to "bully, shame, and terrify" them. Similar ideas are being expressed on the fringes of the internet by angry keyboard warriors, who claim that anyone who supported Covid rules was a dupe and a "bedwetter".

Johnson's inexplicable disgrace will only fuel these stories. We know from the beginning that approximately PS14bn was spent on fraudulent Covid loans and unutilized personal protective equipment. There will be more evidence from this incompetence and misrule when the public inquiry into Britain's pandemic experience will take place. These events may be the perfect material for a grimly familiar story that would suit Nigel Farage, his ilk, and their fury over Downing Street parties. The idea that the pandemic was really just another act of betrayal by the people by an elite and that most restrictions and rules weren't really necessary in any way. Its effects could extend beyond politics to people's basic well-being. If this story is popular, it will only serve to increase the feeling of pain and confusion that has already driven many people over the edge.

These are the dangers the Tory backers of a failed prime Minister need to be aware of. People live by stories, and those in power need to provide some insight into where they are now, what the future holds, and what all of it means. Johnson's series of stupidities means that he is simply incapable of doing this: If the great storyteller doesn't have stories, then his tale will surely end.


 

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