After all, this is the man twice elected Conservative Mayor of London, a predominantly Labour-voting city. But Boris, always Boris, has been a bit of card, hasn’t he?
Bumbling don cyclist, walking classics thesaurus, wit and sometime lothario. Brilliant but, well, not that serious. Winging it on the strength of his obvious intellect.
So here he finds himself, a few short months after winning a stonking electoral majority, faced with Britain’s greatest peacetime challenge. A situation in which poor decisions and confusing communication will cause thousands of deaths and untold human suffering. A time, if ever there was one, for a serious leader and communication to match.
Surrounded by my self-isolating family I now tune in to the daily 5pm televised press conferences held by the Prime Minister, flanked by his impressive scientific and medical experts.
The Prime Minister at the lectern is a new, improved and mature Boris. Thrust by circumstance into the limelight of history he so craves, he is demonstrating the very qualities of leadership his critics used to say he lacks.
His evident clarity of thought now communicated with straightforward, largely jargon-free language, his natural buoyancy tempered by appropriate gravity.
His improvisation sacrificed to a clear grasp of detail, simple messages, repeated with great discipline, an absence of his natural ebullient overreach by turning to others more qualified for expertise, a willingness to manage rather than build great expectations by signalling more draconian measures to come and, what we in the communication business say is a clear call to action, “wash hands, avoid social contact, self-isolate”. He communicates focus, poise and assuredness.
Imagine instead how you would feel with my old boss Iain Duncan Smith at the lectern? Or with Theresa May (who was chair of the party at the time)? In my experience they are both principled, decent people who entered politics to make change for good.
Yet their nicknames Iain Duncan Cough and Theresa May (or May Not) stuck because they didn’t have the ability to meet that basic human need we all have to look at someone in authority, see a leader, gift them our trust and follow. IDS and Theresa May are not natural leaders and communicators. Boris is.
During the past five years, the Government Communication Service has been transformed beyond recognition and much for the better. Our government is served by a team of highly skilled professionals, each enabled by the latest tools technology can offer, monitoring and reacting to events in real-time, passing along the vital information and messages we need to stay safe and well at this time of national crisis. We have never needed them more.
I’m hopeful too that, alongside the PM, the superb and assured performance of the Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance will help re-establish the importance of scientific fact, truth and expertise to national discourse, attitude and demeanour. I hope these shared national moments of factual update, focus, listening and community will help turn the tide against the assault on 300 years of Enlightenment thinking by ignorant keyboard warriors armed with nothing but unfiltered social media accounts. All people are created equal. All opinions are not.
We know now that all will not be well. And, of course, there are those who will believe that the Government’s decisions about handling this dread virus are wrong, whether in substance, financing or timing. I celebrate the fact they have that right. But they know what they are arguing against precisely because the Government has communicated the actions it is taking so clearly.
Thankfully, in Boris Johnson, we have a British Prime Minister with a gift for communication operating superbly at the head of the world’s leading government communication machine. And never have we needed it more, so let’s listen to Boris, his scientific advisers, do what we are told and do what it takes to get through this together. If we do, we might well emerge from the horrors of the Covid-19 crisis with a renewed appreciation for our shared humanity, flaws, warts and all.
Paul Baverstock is a former Director of Communications for the Conservative Party.