James Kirkup

Boris is right to talk about the coronavirus as a mugger

Boris is right to talk about the coronavirus as a mugger
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Is the SARS-CoV-2 virus comparable to a man who accosts you in the street and tries to steal your phone and wallet? Boris Johnson used the image of virus-as-mugger in his Downing Street statement today:

If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger, which I can tell you from personal experience it is, then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor.

And so it follows that this is the moment of opportunity. This is the moment when we can press home our advantage.

It is also the moment of maximum risk because I know there will be many people looking now at our apparent success and beginning to wonder whether now is the time to go easy on those social distancing measures.

You don’t have to gaze long into the abyss of political Twitter to see that a lot of people think this is a silly, inaccurate and possibly Trumpian metaphor. In fact, it’s a very good image to conjure.

I am constantly amazed by the number of people who seem willing to believe that Johnson is some sort of idiot with little or no control over the words that he speaks and writes. If you listen to those who are most intent on finding further and hitherto undetected fault in a visibly flawed politician, Boris Johnson is some sort of rhetorical geyser, spraying out messages and phrases almost at random.

This, of course, is to overlook the awkward evidence that the PM was, not so long ago, one of the most successful journalistic writers of his generation and remains one of its best political communicators. I have a bit of experience here: I used to take my turn editing the Boris column on the Daily Telegraph and on that basis, I can say that the man knows what he’s doing when it comes to words and phrases.

Sometimes that’s to his credit, sometimes not; that depends on whether you like what he’s got to say. But the way he says it is the product of enormous talent – he is simply a very good and engaging writer – and no little skill. He selects his words for the audience he is seeking, and uses them to make sure that audience hears what he wants to say to them.

And so while I do not know this for a fact, I am fairly confident that the 'mugger' image was not some rhetorical accident, words spaffed up the electronic wall for larks. It was carefully aimed.

What sort of person thinks of life in those terms? Who imagines themselves fighting off a mugger, holding the miscreant down and, perhaps, giving him a bloody good hiding? Not me: I’m a realist and a coward. If you mug me, you’ll get my stuff without much trouble.

But there are people who like to think that in that event, if someone tried it on with them in the street, they’d stand and fight and come out on top. Those people are generally male and generally younger: fighting off muggers – or imagining doing so – is essentially a bloke thing. And not the sort of bloke you find on political Twitter, Westminster being a place where boys who were bullied at school go to seek sanctuary, validation and revenge.

And of course, proper blokes who dream of fighting off muggers with their bare hands are precisely the people the government needs to communicate to over lockdown. They are the people most likely to think that lockdown is unnecessary and can be ignored. Government social media messaging operations are targeting young men and ignoring middle-aged women for a reason: only one of those groups needs persuading to stay at home, save the NHS and the rest.

And it is blokes who are now crucial to the next act of the Covid drama: the more compliant they are with restrictions in the next few weeks will be a very big factor in continued transmission rates and how big any second peak of infection is. Hence the very masculine exhortation to help keep the thing pinned down on the pavement – like blokes do.

If you think that the coronavirus-mugger metaphor was daft, you’re almost certainly not the sort of person it was meant for. And if you think it was in that statement by accident or chance because the PM is a rambling buffoon who doesn’t know what he’s going to say next, you’ve fallen for one of the most successful acts in modern politics.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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