As I write, Boris Johnson is in intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital, battling with coronavirus. For someone with such an unwavering belief in his own destiny, this must be profoundly difficult. He is a man who’s beaten the odds over and over: to become mayor of London in a Labour city, to lead the Leave campaign to victory in the teeth of overwhelming opposition, to become prime minister in spite of all his personal baggage, and then to win the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Here is a man who cannot stare into the jaws of defeat without grabbing hold of victory with both hands. Yet the odds of him triumphing in this case keep narrowing. Of those who’ve caught the virus aged 50 to 59 (Boris is 55), their chances of requiring hospitalisation are only one in ten, and just 12 per cent of that fraction end up in intensive care. A hundred to one against and he’s still drawn the short straw. Once a Covid-19 patient has been admitted to intensive care, their chances of coming out are close to 50-50.
It’s his sense of public duty that has landed him in this hole. People who don’t know him, and even some who do, talk disapprovingly of his arrogance and vaulting ambition. But the man I’ve known for more than 35 years contains multitudes, of which Richard III is only one. Henry V is also in there, one of his better angels. He cannot resist the pull of obligation to his country, the need to be of service. I remember cornering him at a Spectator party shortly after he’d announced his intention to become an MP and asking him why he was bothering with politics when he was so clearly destined for the top in journalism. Surely being the editor of the Telegraph would be much more fun than shinning up the greasy pole in Westminster? A career in journalism suited his mischievous, Rabelaisian personality, whereas he’d have to rein all that in if he wanted to succeed in politics. He looked embarrassed — he hates being asked personal questions — and muttered something about ‘public service’. It took me a while to realise he was being serious.
That must be the reason he refused to take it easy after being diagnosed with coronavirus. In spite of having a fever, he carried on chairing the daily 9.15 a.m. Covid meeting and continued going through his red boxes. Some people have criticised him for not handing over to Dominic Raab earlier, as if remaining at the helm was irresponsible. But it would have gone against everything in Boris’s nature to hand over the wheel when navigating such a difficult passage, at least while he still had any strength left. It’s not a case of refusing to acknowledge his own vulnerability because of some misplaced sense of exceptionalism, but of carrying on regardless out of sheer bloody-minded duty. Willpower and resilience will have just kicked in automatically. I don’t suppose he gave it a second thought.
I’ve often wondered what it must be like for him to be prime minister during his country’s darkest hour since the second world war. As I got to know him, it became clear that he saw himself as having a historic role to play in our island story. In politics, that doesn’t make him particularly unusual — you’d be amazed how many obscure backbench MPs entertain fantasies of becoming prime minister. Much rarer is Boris’s ability to inspire others with this belief. Even those who disliked him, who thought he was over-rated, could never completely write him off. And those of us who’ve been closely following his career, watching him fulfil his destiny, came to believe it was all wrapped up with Brexit. That winning the EU referendum, then the leadership, then the election, had all led inexorably to the role he was born for. This was the pivotal moment in Britain’s history where he would bend events to his will and shape our future for decades to come. And yet we were wrong, or at least not entirely right. That may still be his most important contribution, but in the meantime providence has something else in mind, something even more challenging.
I am not a man of faith, but at moments like this you realise you’re still animated by certain core, irrational beliefs. One of those is a kind of mystical belief in Britain’s greatness and her ability to occasionally bring forth remarkable individuals — ordinary men and women of extraordinary ability, to paraphrase Bagehot — who can serve her at critical junctures. I’ve always thought of Boris as one of those people — not just suspected it, but known it in my bones. And in spite of his shrinking odds of survival, I still cannot bring myself to doubt. Britain isn’t finished with you yet, Boris. You will come back to us, full of strength and vigour, larger than life like never before. You must.