‘When a man is about to be hanged,’ said Dr Johnson, ‘it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Assuming that, during his time in the intensive care ward, Boris Johnson felt acutely reminded of his own mortality, what effect might that have?
Because you can’t believe a word he says, anything you write about Johnson is highly speculative, but I spoke to someone who claimed to know him, who told me something I found reassuring. He said the prime minister cares a lot about what the history books will say about him.
If he had died during his brush with coronavirus, they wouldn’t have made great reading: ‘He knew leaving the EU would be highly damaging for the UK, but he pressed on with it because he thought it would advance his own career. He undermined prime minister Theresa May on the pretext that her Withdrawal Agreement was not good enough, then once he had replaced her, negotiated one that was worse. He won an election under a slogan he knew was mendacious, and then when he was confronted with the worst crisis the UK had faced in decades, he proved completely unequal to the task.' Though the charge sheet would obviously be longer than this.
If Johnson is serious about being treated more kindly by history, he must realise there are a number of policies he is going to have to reverse. Most obviously, limiting the damage from Brexit by agreeing a close relationship with the EU to secure the frictionless trade on which the UK’s future depends.
So far the signs aren’t good. He has bizarrely ruled out any extension of the transition period which ends on December 31 at which point, the UK is in danger of crashing out of Europe with a huge hit to jobs, public services, businesses etc.
But the lesson for Boris Johnson of his intimation of mortality is surely this. If there is something you need to do, do it today. There may be no tomorrow.