The pandemic has been going on long enough that it makes little sense to speak of a return to normal. We are grateful for small emancipations, counting the days to shopping and beer gardens. But the world where we took such things for granted is not the one into which we now gingerly emerge.
Even Boris Johnson has learned to manage expectations, having spent 2020 promising liberty unfeasibly soon and allowing relaxation when it was unsafe. In his televised press conference on Monday, the prime minister declared himself reluctant to give “hostages to fortune”. There might be “some semblance of normality” in June, he said.
One difference between “semblance” and the real thing could be a requirement to show proof of Covid negativity to access services – a vaccine passport. Johnson confirmed that the concept was being developed, but was cagey on detail.
Supporters of the idea see it as a minor bureaucratic intervention that can repopulate businesses with customers, reviving the nation’s economy and its spirits. Opponents see it as an affront to liberty and an engine of discrimination against the unvaccinated.
With Labour and dozens of Tory MPs opposed, the scheme could struggle to clear a Commons vote. If Johnson were still a backbench MP, he would be with the rebellion. He would be mining Stasi analogies to denounce the scheme as impractical and immoral; biometric surveillance by the back door.
Johnson’s libertarian impulse can be numbed but not removed by the pressures of running a government. He could have used the press conference to make the case for vaccine certification. Instead, he stressed that the plan was provisional. His eyes flitted to the corners of the room, as they always do when he is mentally scoping emergency exits.
Johnson doesn’t really have a poker face. You can usually tell that he is bluffing because his lips are moving. But when he is confident he will get away with something, he looks brazenly into the camera. On vaccine passports, his shiftiness presaged retreat – implementing a scheme for the sake of government vanity, but diluting it with enough exemptions to make it functionally worthless.
The whole debate has an air of displacement activity. It is a rhetorical playground for politicians who like arguing from positions of ideological certainty, which has not been the best mode for pandemic management. Many MPs crave the restoration of “normal” politics as much as their constituents are itching to get down to the pub.
But normality in the Westminster context describes something more profound than indoor dining or maskless shopping. It refers back to a time when the competition between parties was underpinned by commonly respected conventions. Combat in the political arena was fierce, but also constrained by unwritten codes of permissible conduct. There were rules.
That consensus was unmade before the first coronavirus infection had happened in Britain. Not much of what was considered normal in UK politics before 2016 made it unscathed through the years of parliamentary trench warfare over Brexit. The ferocity of that combat cut across party lines. The corrosive and relentless ugliness of the rhetoric, the hysterical accusations of treason, the flagrant inversions of truth for campaign advantage – it all combined to inflict a trauma on British democracy. And it has not been processed because another trauma swept in straight behind it.
One casualty of that period was the notion that prime ministers are restrained from abusing their office by a sense of constitutional decorum. Johnson disproved that by illegally dissolving parliament in August 2019. The offence was reversed by the supreme court in September, but rewarded three months later in electoral triumph.
Johnson proceeds through life operating on the belief that rules apply to lesser people. His career is built on the charismatic knack for persuading people to exempt him from ordinary standards of decent behaviour. It has become a self-reinforcing myth of resilience. The more he weathers exposure of flagrant dishonesty, the less impact anyone expects when he is accused of telling another untruth.
If his supporters could be repelled by deficiencies in his character, his various grim libidinous adventures would have done the damage by now. Each time he bounces back from some display of negligence or incompetence, it gets harder to imagine the scale of misdeed required to finish him. He has survived failure and scandal that would once have incinerated prime ministers. Since fallibility is woven so deep into the “Boris” brand, it supplies its own exoneration.
It is an impressively durable phenomenon, although that does not confer political immortality. The prime minister’s luck will one day run out. But it still confounds most conventional expectation that he should have come this far, to be speaking from the dais in the new £2.6m Downing Street briefing room, designed to confer pseudo-presidential authority, a huge union flag at each shoulder, laying out the official government roadmap to normal.
What does that word even mean with this prime minister? We can understand it in the context of the pandemic as the return to small pleasures and social proximities. It means familiarity. But in politics, what feels familiar can be misleading, and Johnson is the master of that deception. He is adept at the casual display of power, informal, unchecked, direct to camera; government by force of character. His gift is to make that seem natural, as if it has always been this way. But it is an accident of historical circumstance. It is the elision of Brexit aftermath and pandemic. And it is not normal.
Rafael Behr is a Hlcarpenter.com columnist