. Clap for Boris? You must be joking | Ceasefire Magazine

Clap for Boris? You must be joking Notes from the Margins

In framing a negligent prime minister as a symbol of our collective national resilience, the #ClapforBoris narrative is an attempt to obfuscate the government’s very real failings at a time when the human cost of its COVID-19 errors is becoming horribly apparent, writes Matt Carr.

New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins, Politics - Posted on Friday, April 10, 2020 21:50 - 2 Comments


As most people in the UK will be aware, Boris Johnson has spent most of the last week in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU).  Fortunately, he is now recovering. I say ‘fortunately’ because only ghouls wish to see their political enemies, no matter how contemptible they find them to be, exposed to physical suffering and death.

That does not, however, mean that we are obliged to accept the meanings that some of Johnson’s supporters have tried to impose on his illness during the last week. Consider the hashtag campaign on Twitter that accompanied Johnson’s transfer to the ICU, which called on the nation to come out of their houses and #ClapforBoris on Tuesday evening.

These exhortations referenced the #clapforNHS campaign that has been unfolding across the country since the lockdown began three weeks ago, which in turn echoes similar campaigns in Italy and Spain. The aim of these campaigns is simple, unequivocal, and entirely admirable: to express appreciation to the doctors, nurses, and other health service workers who have been treating patients during the pandemic.

Anyone who reads the newspapers or goes on the Internet can find the most heart-breaking and devastating testimonies of the traumas to which these workers have been exposed. Many of them have worked beyond the point of exhaustion, risking their own lives and the lives of their own families, because they were not tested or lacked the personal protection equipment (PPE) that should have been available to them in any advanced industrial economy. 

Some of them have died because they lacked such equipment. That is, or should be, a national scandal. And yet these workers have shown the kind of heroism, solidarity, and self-sacrifice that is normally associated with wartime – something that was recognised in Italy, where some towns sang the old partisan anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ in appreciation of their courage. 

At first sight, the #clapforBoris campaign extended this spirit of solidarity to the prime minister, though ‘hijacked’ would be a more appropriate term. Not surprisingly, the campaign was initially promoted by Johnson’s old outfit at Leave.EU:

The #clapforBoris hashtag has been recycled by Tory/Brexit bots, and also by Johnson’s supporters in the Tory press, which have exhorted us to clap for Boris, and also to “pray for him”. To some extent, Johnson’s struggle with the disease has become a metaphor for the nation’s ability to survive it.  All week Twitter has been awash with people hailing Johnson as a ‘warrior’ and a ‘fighter’, and cheering him on as if we were witnessing Alien versus Predator or King Leonidas fighting off the Persians. 

The hapless Dominic Raab, a politician whose name will never trouble the end of the adage ‘cometh the hour’, told the nation in a press conference that Johnson will recover because he is ‘ a fighter.’  Just to be clear – and we really should be clear about this – there is no evidence that surviving COVID-19 has anything to do with whether you are a ‘fighter’ or not. Survival depends on the quality of health care you receive, the numbers of nurses and doctors, the level of protection that they have, the supply of ventilators and the availability of ICU beds, the individual viral load that patients have, age, underlying health conditions and sheer good, or bad, luck.

In disseminating these ‘fighter’ tropes in order to magnify Johnson’s heroic persona and imagined grandiosity, Johnson’s cheerleaders are actually denigrating those who have not survived, and suggesting they lacked these ‘warrior’ qualities. That is indecent enough in itself, but by asking people to clap for Johnson as they have clapped for NHS workers, these cheerleaders have also suggested that Johnson has demonstrated the same spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice that these workers have shown.

Once again, it is entirely legitimate to want Johnson to recover. It is also understandable that a frightened and bewildered nation would want to see its prime minister back at the helm – even if that prime minister is someone as tainted as Johnson. 

Lest we forget, this is a man who spent most of January on holiday, who vanished from public view for more than a week in February, who dithered and hesitated at crucial moments in the early stages of the pandemic, who refused initially to join the EU’s ventilator procurement scheme, who pursued a ‘herd immunity’ strategy and then denied that he had done any such thing, who boasted of shaking hands with Covid-19 patients and cracked jokes about ‘flattening the sombrero’ and ‘operation last gasp’.

So there is nothing, literally nothing, that Johnson has done that is even remotely on the same moral plane as the NHS workers that the public has been applauding each week, and it is an insult to them to suggest otherwise. The actual response to the ‘clapforBoris’ campaign appears to have been patchy, at best. Nadine Dorries, one of Johnson’s most avid sycophants, tweeted that her ‘amazing neighbours’ made her cry when she heard them clapping for ‘the boss’ on Tuesday – a claim that might have been more impressive had her tweet not copied, word for word, another tweet by someone calling himself ‘Keith’ and who appears to be a bot.

Despite the poor turnout, the Tory/Brexiter chorus covered the newspaper column inches with purple prose, singing Johnson’s praises and declaring their adoration for a man whose illness has made greater than many had previously thought. The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson condemned the ‘metropolitian media class’ – that would be her – for failing to appreciate  that ‘Boris is loved – really loved’ and that his health is ‘the health of the nation.’

Sarah Vine, the Poundland Lady MacBeth – who colluded in her husband’s successful attempt to scupper Johnson’s first leadership bid, back in 2016 – claimed that Johnson’s illness had brought ‘a nation of strangers, closer together’ because ‘ Boris is us, and we are Boris.’ Lady Gove of Cocaygne also believes that Johnson’s illness has ‘taught the nation the meaning of compassion’ and exhorts nay-sayers to ‘shelve all ideology, all preconception, in the name of compassion and the greater good.’

Prose like this is of course embarrassing and painful to read, like some old tribute to Stalin from the Soviet Writers Union. Elsewhere, Julia Hartley-Brewer, taking time out from her usual role as the sour rightwing harpie in the Mean Girls remake for middle-aged trolls, sternly reminded heartless lefties and libtards that Johnson is ‘a father, a father to be, a fiancé and someone with family and friends.’

And Toby Young, whose feelings for Johnson really ought to be able to speak their name in these enlightened times – I mean it really is ok –  found that Johnson’s plight induced in him ‘ 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.’

These are sentiments to make the most jaded blogger’s heart melt, if the members of this dismal choir were not so rancidly, brazenly false and insincere from top to bottom, and singing a song that rings as hollow as rain in an old tin can. 

All we need to finish off is Johnson singing ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Great Britannia.’ Call me a cynic – and some already have – but I can’t help feeling that this outpouring of love and devotion has very little to do with compassion, solidarity, or crisis leadership, and a great deal more to do with the same steely, flint-eyed Tory gaze that we have been exposed to for way too long – to the general detriment of our moral and physical health.

In selectively and dishonestly framing this deeply-flawed, inadequate and negligent prime minister as a symbol of our collective national resilience, the ‘clapforBoris’ narrative is a distraction, and indeed an obfuscation, of the government’s very real failings, at a time when the human cost of its COVID-19 errors is becoming horribly apparent.

Yesterday, on a day when nearly 900 people died of COVID-19, the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, informed the nation of the main news: that Johnson was “in extremely good spirits”. It’s not long since similar statistics in Italy were hailed in the UK press as ‘Italy’s darkest hour’, and the UK’s horrific numbers may well fall short of the reality, so Johnson’s recovery is not much consolation.

According to the Financial Times, the actual UK coronavirus death toll may be as much as 78 percent higher than has been officially recorded. Recent modelling from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that the UK is on course to register 66,314 deaths by August – which would be by some margin the highest death toll in Europe.

Yesterday it was also reported that Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a 54-year-old urologist, died of COVID-19. Three weeks ago, Dr Chowdhury wrote to Johnson on Facebook pleading for PPE for NHS workers, in which he reminded the PM:  

Remember we may be doctor/nurse/HCA/allied health workers who are in direct contact with patients but we are also human beings trying to live in this world disease free with our family and friends. People appreciate us and salute us for our rewarding jobs which is very inspirational, but I would like to say we have to protect ourselves and our families in this global disaster.

That equipment is still lacking. Testing is still lacking. All of this is unutterably tragic. So when Tory trolls and pundits use the Prime Minister’s illness to create a false camaraderie to distract from this appalling reality, we do not have to accept it. Not once has Johnson ever shown the kind of empathy and understanding that his supporters are now insisting we all show – for him. 

So let us wish him well, but we do not have to place Johnson on the same level as men like Doctor Chowdhury just to make the government look good. We do not have to allow ourselves to be manipulated by the Sun, which crowed today, on a day on which the UK death toll reached its highest level since the pandemic began, ‘Boris is Out (Now that really is a Good Friday!)’.  

No it isn’t, and to suggest such a thing is a gross insult to the dead and also to those who treated them. And for those who suggest that we should measure our capacity for compassion and humanity by our willingness to clap for Boris, I will take no lectures from them.

As Dylan once sang, “now ain’t the time for your tears”, and now is not the time to allow ourselves to be distracted from the enormity of this disaster by grotesque personality cults that might work fine in North Korea, but should have no place here, in a country reeling from the gravest public health emergency of modern times.

Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and campaigner. His books include My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent and 'Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History'. His second novel Black Sun Rising will be published by Pegasus in June. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs atwww.infernalmachine.co.uk.


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Dewi Jones
Apr 12, 2020 8:14

Thank you for this brilliantly stated perspective on one critical aspect of our plight in the face of COVID 19!

Janet Broadmore
Apr 12, 2020 12:07

Great article. Whilst we await a vaccine, it strikes me as a pity there isn’t one given at birth that prevents lieing, cheating, hypocrisy and self-interest. Why would anyone clap for someone who embodies those traits.

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