Boris Johnson is very often talked about as a lucky politician, quite often by people who want to point out that his luck has run out.
When Michael Gove turned on him, when he quit as foreign secretary over Theresa May’s Brexit deal, all were apparent denouements for the lucky man. But luck bears down more heavily upon you when you are not in control of events.
That his first prime minister’s questions facing Labour’s new leader Keir Starmer should take place the day after the UK officially recorded the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, and the second-largest in the world, is nothing to do with luck. It is a direct consequence of his own actions. It didn’t need to be like this.
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That the first question he would receive from his new interrogator in chief should end with the justifiably disdainful words, “How did it come to this prime minister?” is also not a matter of luck.
It is certainly not good luck that Johnson looks completely knackered. A week in intensive care followed by a night in the maternity unit is liable to do that to a man.
When asked about his presiding over one of the world’s worst national responses to coronavirus and the staggering, avoidable death toll for which he bears responsibility, would a less exhausted Johnson have thought better than to say that “international comparisons are not always accurate”?
We ask this because Johnson is the key member of the current generation of Tory politicians, the one that has never psychologically left the Oxford Union, which is to say the most malignant generation in our nation’s history, for whom life is all just one big debate.
Would he not have seen what would come next, which would be Starmer holding up one of the government’s own slides, from one of its more than 50 press conferences on consecutive days, in which all it does is compare the scale of the UK’s outbreak to other countries, and quietly pointing out that it “doesn’t hold water” that the day on which the UK’s death toll would become the highest in Europe should also be the day that we must all stop comparing ourselves with other countries.
Scarcely a sentence seems to ever be written about Starmer without mentioning his past as the country’s chief prosecutor, and the fact that there is no shortage of prosecuting now to be done. But backstories and CVs don’t make good politicians. People just have it or they don’t.
Probably, it helped him that the chamber was empty. Detailed, difficult questions could not be blustered away. There was no traditional Tory backbench baboon chorus to be relied upon to rise to the empty chest beating of their chimpanzee leader.
At one point, Johnson just breezily doubled the coronavirus testing target to 200,000 a day by the end of the month. This was in response to the overwhelming evidence that the current target was a PR exercise and fundamentally a joke, so he just issued a new one.
But none of this is to say that Johnson’s luck has run out. Not even close. It’s hardly the case that he is unlucky to have to deal with Starmer, when his predecessor had three comparatively glorious years of Jeremy Corbyn.
Counterfactual histories are a bit of a mug’s game. But had Michael Gove not decided, in 2016, that Johnson was unfit to be prime minister (before re-re-changing his mind again rather more recently), it’s not too much of a leap to think that there would have been a snap election, no hung parliament, no Corbyn, and he’d have had Starmer to worry about at a rather earlier stage in the Brexit process.
He would also, as it happens, be staring down the barrel of a coronavirus election.
That Johnson has a functioning opposition to worry about will be useful for pundits. But many such pundits also have a long enough memory to recall William Hague terrifying Tony Blair at prime minister’s questions for several years. The evidence would suggest it did not appear to make a huge amount of difference to the voters.
Still, it is commonly agreed that Blair’s comfortable 2001 victory on a low turnout with a strong economy was evidence of the politics of contentment.
The year 2024 is a long way off, but it is probably already early enough to forecast that particular emotion will still be in short supply by then.