LONDON — He’s 55, a little plump and likes cheese. He used to jog but had to give it up. The knees. The prime minister was never super fit, but he was vigorous — and he’s now the best-known coronavirus patient in the world.
Just weeks ago, an exuberant, healthy Boris Johnson was rocking his world. Now he’s at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, out of the intensive care unit Thursday but still on oxygen support. The suddenness of it, the indiscriminate way he was felled, has stunned Britons.
Unseen in his hospital bed, Johnson dominates the news. He’s the absent leader at Britain’s darkest hour. He is the master orator, silenced.
And yet at this moment, the prime minister is somehow at his most human. He’s a middle-aged everyman bloke struggling to get out of the virus ward alive. And the people are pulling for him.
“How is Boris? For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday. And our last thought before we fell asleep the night before. The prospect of losing our prime minister was profoundly shocking. ‘He won’t die, will he?’ a friend texted at 11:18 p.m. ‘My heart will break.’ “
That was columnist Allison Pearson, writing this week in the Telegraph, the newspaper where Johnson once toiled as a hack, under the headline “We need you, Boris — your health is the health of the nation.”
The prime minister’s disappearance into the twilight of the ICU this week elicited sympathy even from among those who candidly say they can’t stand his Tory politics.
“I hate him. But I would be devastated if that clown died,” said Vicki Cullen, 40, who had stopped for a takeout coffee at London’s Exmouth Market. “I mean, two days ago, I found myself in tears talking to my family about it.”
Like few other British politicians, Johnson is intimately known to the public, thanks to the serial scandals and comebacks that make up the tabloid dramedy of his life.
But this episode is the worst by far.
Johnson and his 32-year-old fiancee, Carrie Symonds, were beaming in photographs as recently as the end of February, when they announced their engagement days after his divorce was settled — while the virus was already spreading in Britain after running rampant in China and Italy.
The two broke all protocol, all norms, when they moved into 10 Downing Street as an unwed couple after Johnson’s election.
Nobody complained. Rather, people applauded — or shrugged.
Two weeks ago, Symonds began to suffer from the same symptoms of the virus as her husband-to-be and hasn’t seen Johnson in days, as the two self-isolated.
Rachel Johnson, Boris’s sister, retweeted a picture of hospital staff wearing face masks and holding up letters that read: “Get Well Soon Boris.”
Stanley Johnson, Boris’s 79-year-old father, who is in self-isolation, told the Daily Mail, “I am not being told how Boris is getting on. But he is optimistic, determined and resilient.”
Guto Harri, Johnson’s communications director when he was mayor of London, said people feel as if they know Johnson personally. In addition to serving two terms as mayor, Johnson worked as a newspaper journalist, appeared on television shows and wrote books — including one about his hero Winston Churchill and a widely panned comic political novel titled “Seventy Two Virgins.”
His fans like him, Harri said, because Johnson comes across as authentic. He’s an Eton-educated politician who speaks fluent French, drops Latin into sentences and has had a colorful personal life (and been accused of groping journalists). But, Harri said, “ordinary people will relate to anyone as long as you’re not pretending to be someone you’re not.”
He added: “He’s flawed, he’s had affairs, his wife kicked him out, took him back, then he’s with a young woman who is pregnant. But there is very little resentment — for most human beings are flawed themselves. He’s not trying to portray himself as someone who is better than you.”
So when Johnson tested positive for coronavirus but posted videos that suggested he would soldier through, “he became a metaphor for how the country and economy will get through this, too,” Harri said. “But when he got it bad, the country thought, damn, it will hit us harder than we thought.”
Andrew Gimson, a political journalist who is a contemporary and biographer of Johnson’s, said, “Some people are surprised by how concerned they feel about him.”
He said, “It’s just a natural human thing; people feel for his pregnant fiancee and children and his whole rather complicated and extensive family. Human sympathy takes over from partisan sniping.”
Royal Post worker Tony Hudson said he has been tracking Johnson’s plight via TV and radio reports. Johnson’s old home is around the corner in Islington in north London, and Hudson said it felt as if a neighbor, as much as a leader, was in trouble.
“It shows you, it could affect anyone, couldn’t it?” said Hudson, who was waiting in a line — each person six feet from the next — outside a pharmacy. Hudson, 52, noted that he is about the same age as the prime minister but that his life amid the pandemic is much different.
Every day Hudson has to work, with mail and packages, without protective gear. “I wouldn’t say we are scared. But of course, we are worried,” he said. And a prime minister in the ICU, he said, “has made everyone think.”
Johnson’s early handling of the coronavirus crisis has been criticized. Britain was slower than most European nations to roll out strict stay-at-home measures. But few have questioned his work ethic. If anything, perhaps the prime minister was working too hard. Aides complained it might have undercut his immune response.
As the epidemic grew more serious, Johnson appeared to adapt his tone. He was no longer goofing around in his usual way. Instead, he was flanked by senior medical and scientific advisers at the daily 10 Downing Street news conference, where he encouraged them to weigh in on questions.
For most of Johnson’s political life, Gimson said, Johnson’s critics have maintained that he’s a “clown and not trustworthy, and they are very attached to that view.” But now, he said, “most fair-minded people recognize he’s not some mere buffoon but a person of considerable abilities, and everyone genuinely hopes he gets better.”
Politicians across the political spectrum have declared their support. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, who has clashed with Johnson over the issue of Scottish independence, said that many, including herself, felt “really shaken” at the news of his ICU admission.
“We are all willing you on, Boris. Get well soon,” she said.
Johnson’s critics have not turned into fans. Some people on social media responded to the calls to #ClapForBoris on his second night in the ICU by posting videos showing scenes of complete silence from their windowsills.
“He isn’t the queen. He is still a politician,” said Ben Page, chief executive of the polling group Ipsos Mori. But he noted that just before Johnson went into the hospital, his personal ratings were up 16 percentage points from where they were before Christmas. “People rally around their leader in a crisis.”
That was also true of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female leader, who was very unpopular in the early 1980s, when there were waves of strikes across the country. But she saw a huge uptick in support after the 1982 Falklands War. In 1983, she won a landslide victory in the general election.
Johnson’s current approval rating is 52% — sky-high for Britain, where voters are known to elect and then immediately begin trashing their leaders.