Boris returns to Downing Street. Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

April 27, 2020   5 mins

The last prime minister to dodge death while in office was Margaret Thatcher. The experience of almost being blown to pieces by the IRA in October 1984 did not notably soften the Iron Lady.

The morning after the bombing of the Grand Brighton Hotel, she took to the stage of the Tory Party conference breathing a message of pure defiance. “The fact that we are gathered here now — shocked, but composed and determined — is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” Indeed, her only concession to the attempted assassination of the cabinet a few hours previously was to omit from her conference speech a planned condemnation of large swathes of the Labour Party as the enemy within. Otherwise, the lady was very much not for turning.

A virus, however, is an altogether subtler and more insidious foe than a terrorist organisation. Covid-19 brings no demands, no ultimatums.

Boris Johnson, lying in intensive care three weeks ago and feeling the spider touch of the virus darkening and tightening through his body, would have experienced in the most personal and abject manner possible the threat that it presents to the body politic. Its workings are mysterious. There is still no clear picture of how it speads. Even in countries that cannot be accused of fiddling their figures there remains no certainty as to how many people are dying of it, let alone how many have contracted it. To fashion a policy to combat the virus, then, is not simply a matter of following ‘the science’. Even the world’s most brilliant epidemiologists know themselves to be groping after solutions in fog. There is no self-evident path to defeating SARS-Cov-2.

Which said, it is hard to believe that the Prime Minister, during the fortnight he has spent at Chequers recuperating from his brush with death, will not have been reflecting on whether, in the weeks before he was rushed to St Thomas’, he might possibly have done things differently.

The Government’s campaign against Covid-19 has not, it is fair to say, developed necessarily to Britain’s advantage. Far more people, relative to the size of the population, have died in this country than in Germany, let alone than in poorer countries such as Slovakia or Greece. Johnson’s initial attempt to square the competing demands of public health and the economy seems to have ended up inflicting avoidable damage on both. The gung-ho swagger that helped him to win the Brexit referendum and the last election proved altogether less successful against Covid-19. Today, as he returns to Downing Street, his own lungs bear the scars that prove it.

“Back to his normal, ebullient self.” So Matt Hancock described the Prime Minister on Friday. This may be true — and yet there were hints in the speech that he gave after being discharged from hospital that his personal experience of Covid-19 has served to recalibrate his take both on the virus and on those who are daily risking their own lives to fight it. His salute to healthcare workers seemed rawer, more personal, more emotional than his tributes to them had been before he went into intensive care. “It is thanks to that courage, that devotion, that duty and that love that our NHS has been unbeatable.”

Prior to falling sick, the only ideal that ever seemed to stir Johnson to matching flourishes of emotion was what he has always lauded as Britain’s “ancient and basic freedoms” — but this morning, standing outside No 10 on his return to Downing Street, he insisted once again that these had to remain prorogued, that the need to save the NHS from being overwhelmed had to come first. Before he fell ill, he had spoken in martial terms of sending coronavirus packing, as though it might have been General Galtieri or Jeremy Corbyn. Now he speaks of a victory that will be won by the NHS’s power of love.

Whether language like this will pacify the growing number of Tory MPs fretting that the economy as well as civil liberties are being sacrificed on the altar of saving lives the next few weeks will tell. So also will they be the test of just how far Johnson himself is prepared to go in maintaining the lockdown. History does not suggest that catching and surviving a disease during a time of pandemic necessarily precipitates any great process of conversion among political leaders. Instead, from the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who in 542 almost died of the plague to which he would give his name, to David Lloyd-George, who in the final month of the First World War went down with the Spanish Flu, and only just survived it, most seem to have carried on in much as they had ever done.

The celebrated example of a leader supposedly undergoing a dramatic change of character after an illness — one of which the classically educated Prime Minister will be more than aware — is not a model that he will be looking to emulate. In AD 37, a few months after becoming emperor, Gaius Caesar — ‘Caligula’ — fell dangerously ill. The Roman people, distraught at the prospect of losing their young and charismatic ruler, were thrown into paroxysms of anxiety. One of them, a wealthy businessman named Atanius Secundus, swore a particularly extravagant oath. Only restore Caligula to health, he promised the gods, and he would fight as a gladiator.

Naturally, he had not expected to be taken up on this vow. His aim had been merely to stand out from the other sycophants. Once back up on his feet, however, the Emperor took Atanius at his word. With a perfectly straight fact, Caligula ordered the wretched flatterer into the arena, there to fight for the amusement of the crowds. Predictably enough, paired against a trained killer, Atanius did not last long. The spectacle of his body being dragged away across the sands of the arena on a hook served notice to the Roman people that their young emperor had risen from his sickbed a dramatically altered person: no longer a man but a monster.

Such, at any rate, was the story. In truth, like so much told about Caligula, it was a myth. Almost certainly, the emperor was no more a lunatic after his illness than he had been before, and the readiness of the Romans to believe it reflected a more general understanding of disease as one of the many expressions of a capricious and repeatedly brutal cosmos. This might express itself in a variety of ways: as a feeling of impotence before “Fortune’s rapid wheel, which is always interchanging adversity and prosperity” or, in its more sophisticated form, as a philosophy of retreat before the world, an insistence that the only true wisdom is to ignore the sufferings of others, to immure oneself within a pleasant garden, and to cultivate ataraxia, the absence of worry.

There was no place, in this understanding of the universe, for the kind of sickbed conversion that would become such a staple of Christian hagiography: the knight so mortified by an attack of acne that he gave away all his possessions; the invalided merchant’s son who was brought to devote his life to the sick. Certainly, there was no place in the world of classical antiquity for any conception of a national health service — let alone one powered by love.

Salus populi suprema lex esto,” the Prime Minister is supposed to have declared at a summit of ministers and health officials on Friday — and then, for the benefit of those in attendance not familiar with Cicero, to have offered his own translation: “the health of the people should be the supreme law”. In fact, as Johnson would well have known, the Latin word ‘salus,’ which he translated as ‘health’, had a much broader range of meanings: ‘safety’, ‘welfare’, ‘soundness’.

Here, then, it may be, is as clear an indication of the Prime Minister’s new state of mind as we are likely to get: one in which admiration for the martial values of classical antiquity, rather than being subordinated to a new found passion for the NHS, has instead been seamlessly fused with it. What is the Latin for “Having one’s cake and eating it?”

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX