The Burner Episode #228: Boris Johnson’s Two Bodies

Ash Sarkar ponders whether the media’s elevation of Boris Johnson to symbol of the nation’s health is a sign of something rotten in the state of politics. Plus, Matt Hancock’s testing pledge comes a cropper as South Korea’s test, trace and isolate strategy bears fruit.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m Ash Sarkar and it is Thursday April 3, 2020. We are still in lockdown.

Yesterday, the prime minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds announced the birth of their infant son. A spokesperson confirmed to the press that both mother and baby were doing well, but declined to get further details on the child’s wait, time or location of birth, whether labour was induced, the child delivered by C-section, born prematurely – or just keen to get first dibs in the next election’s pick of safe seats.

The baby boy is Carrie Symonds’ first child and Boris Johnsons’ [beep].

The arrival of a child in the world is, of course, a cause for celebration. Iain Duncan Smith congratulated the happy couple and praised that as-yet-unnamed child as a symbol of hope, renewal and change.

His warm words for Carrie and Boris are a far cry from comments he made at a Conservative Party conference fringe event in 2017, where he said that co-habiting relationships are “inherently unstable” and unmarried men are a problem for society. I suppose, though, we all grow and change with experience.

In a 1995 article for The Spectator, Boris Johnson argued that the children of single mothers are ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive, and illegitimate. That didn’t stop him from leaving a trail of such mothers and children in his wake.

All in all, it’s been a dramatic month for the prime minister. Monday marked his first day back in an official capacity since his hospitalization for coronavirus earlier this month. And, as ever, our tenacious media was ready to hold our returning head of government to the very highest standards of accountability possible.

ITV’s Robert Peston mused: “Having babies change us. Near-death experiences change us…So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?”. Twitter, rather unkindly, stepped up to remind Mr Peston that Boris Johnson isn’t quite a first-time father. But, you know what they say… Third time’s the charm. Or is that sixth or seventh?

This suggestion that Johnson’s bout of the rona took him from cavalier gadabout to grave statesman has shades of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, whose father’s death turns him from a devil-may-care hooligan to the victor at Agin-court

Anyway, The Times’s Rachel Sylvester rhapsodised the PM’s return to instil discipline in a cabinet shaped in his own image. Sylvester suggested parallels between Johnson and that great man of politics, his hero, Winston Churchill.

The Mail’s Stephen Glover extolled the virtues of a Boris dragged from the clutches of death to be reborn as a sombre statesman.

The Telegraph’s Gutto Hari went one [step] further and claimed that Boris Johnson is a one-man metaphor for the nation’s battle with Covid-19. “Now that he’s back,” gushed Hari, “it’s difficult not to feel a corresponding surge of optimism about the prospects of the UK emerging largely intact from all this.” Gutto Hari was writing just two days after the UK passed 20,000 deaths in hospital from Covid-19 for the first time – with 20,000 deaths being, of course, the benchmark’s, set by the government’s chief scientific advisor as a good outcome for the pandemic.

As of 5pm on Tuesday, 26,097 people have died after testing positive for coronavirus. There’s been a distinctly Shakespearian flavour to how the establishment media have framed Johnson’s sickness, recovery and return to Number 10.

Sky’s Kay Burley, quoting the [inaudible] Henry IV via Stormzy, tweeted an image of Johnson at the lectern with the caption “Heavy is the head that wears the crown”. This suggestion that Johnson’s bout of the rona took him from cavalier gadabout to grave statesman has shades of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, whose father’s death turns him from a devil-may-care hooligan to the victor at Agin-court. Everyone loves the narrative arc where the protagonist does a full 180 in their character following personal calamity, but this isn’t story time. It’s government.

“Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.”

― William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Old stories have a way of popping up again in today’s political theater. And this one, that there are political social meanings to be divined from the physical form of political leaders, has its origins in the notion of a ruler’s body natural and the body politic.

It was originally a concept cooked up by medieval jurists. The body politic referred to the immortal power of the sovereign. Its word is indisputable law, and its omnipresence in every corner of the nation.

The body natural was the physical form of the King. He could get ill, assassinated, deposed or otherwise demonstrate the fallibility of all flesh, and yet the body politic would remain intact. But this mystic relationship between the king’s two bodies could be a troubled one as well.

The resilience of the nation was seen to depend on the physical integrity of its leader. Should things go a bit skew-whiff in the body’s bedrooms and [inaudible] of the sovereign’s… Well, something is rotten in the state of Denmark also.

We might think we’re beyond the hocus-pocus of the pre-modern period, but when Iran’s health minister fell ill with the coronavirus, it was interpreted by the British commentary as the symptom of a failing state. The original outbreak in Wuhan was seen by many to embody cultural backwardness, uncleanliness and the inherent disfunction of the Chinese state. The sickness of bodies natural was an indictment of the body politic.

In the UK, by contrast, when our heir to the throne, chief medical officer, health minister and prime minister all fell ill, it was a symbol of egalitarianism. “We’re all in this together,” as the BBCs Nick Robinson put it.

I mean, look, there’s nothing remarkable about the hypocrisy of British exceptionalism, but what’s weird about Britain in big 2020 is the insistence in parts of our establishment media that the recovery of the prime minister and the bountiful plenitude of his loins, no doubt, itself has mystic medicinal properties for the country at large. That, somehow, our prime minister’s own good fortune isn’t acceptable substitute for government’s good policy.

But, the rude health of Boris’s body natural cannot obscure the dire state of the nation’s public health. Care homes report being told by NHS trusts that elderly residents with Covid symptoms will not be admitted to hospital. Key workers still struggle to obtain adequate PPE. And still, we hurtle head long for the worst death toll in Europe.

As Boris Johnson, Carrie Symmonds and a pressthat would embarrass most medieval courtiers, celebrate the arrival of a new face at Number 10, forgive me, my thoughts are with the sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, spouses and parents of those who’ve died because of this government’s complacency.

Matt Hancock: I’m really sorry your dad’s dead. I’ve seen the comments that you’ve made and what you’ve said in public, and I think it’s very brave of you to be speaking out.

That was Matt Hancock earlier this week on LBC being confronted by the son of a doctor who died after contracting coronavirus. Dr Abdul Mabud Chowdhury had written an open letter to the prime minister warning of PPE shortages and Matt Hancock repeatedly refused to take responsibility for failures to supply PPE to hospitals when pressed by Dr Chowdhury’s son.

Today is the self-imposed deadline for Matt Hancock to fulfil his pledge of 100,000 tests per day. Yesterday, just over 50,000 tests were completed and the drive-in testing centres, that have been set up to ramp up capacity, have been beset by delays and dysfunction. Reports emerged of key workers experiencing coronavirus symptoms being stuck in their cars for up to five hours as cues backed up, samples being labelled wrongly and lost, test vials leaking, and people having to administer their own nasal swabs.

Do you know how far those things have to go back?

Staff in the NHS Trust nearest to the testing centre located at the Wembley Ikea, have reportedly been advised not to use it, instead being swabbed at work and waiting for the Francis Crick Institute to return the results.

Who amongst us could have foreseen that getting Deloitte, an accountancy firm, to manage medical logistics and data might not be a good idea?

The government’s failure to meet its own target for testing has been thrown into sharp relief by the successes of other countries. It was announced overnight that South Korea, who had swiftly implemented the test, trace and isolate regime that the UK is now belatedly seeking to emulate, recorded no new domestic cases of Covid 19. The South Korean death toll is at 247 people. The government is now looking towards easing lockdown restrictions.

Across the Atlantic, in the land of opportunity, pressure mounts on Joe Biden to address sexual assault allegations made by Tara Reade, a former aide to his senate office.

President Trump has insisted he will not be extending distance in guidelines beyond this Thursday, despite the US death toll passing 60,000.

Billionaire, boyfriend of Grimes, Elon Musk continues to protest the American lockdown. The CEO of SpaceX called social distancing measures “fascistic” despite himself predicting in a March 10 tweet that there would be close to zero new cases in the US by the end of April. Money can do many things, but it can’t buy you a lick of sense.

Headlines today

The Financial Times lead with the government’s preparation of a blueprint to get the nation safely back to work.

The Guardian splashes [with] hospital chiefs [condemning] testing failures amid growing frustration.

And The Independent juxtapose the personal joy for Boris Johnson and Carrie Symmonds against the grim news that the UK’s death toll is now the third highest in the world.

The Daily Mirror’s headline brands the UK mortality figures as a national tragedy.

While The Times cheerily lead with the drug trial to give hope for treatment of the virus, reporting there on trials involving the antiviral Remdesivir.

The Telegraph, [who] never want to knowingly allow a little pandemic to get in the way of the exploitation of labour, mournfully report that “Johnson to dash lockdown hopes”.

For those of you hoping to be reunited with a second home and/or resume an extra marital affair, my deepest condolences.

In the comments today, the business energy and industrial strategy committee will hear oral evidence on the impact of the pandemic on small businesses. The digital culture, media and sports sub committee meets to discuss online harms and disinformation, with an appearance from Facebook’s UK public policy manager, Richard Earley. This might be one to keep half an eye on.

Later on is the Thursday clap for carers at 8pm – let the government know that you’re thinking of them by chanting “Give them PPE” as well, won’t you?

You can get in touch with me on Twitter at @ayoceasar. As ever, you can keep your questions, tips, and shade coming by tweeting us @NovaraMedia or using the hashtag #TheBurner. If you liked what you heard, please do let us know – it makes our day. And, if you didn’t, things get lost in the post all the time, don’t they?

Tomorrow James Butler is back to take the reins and reimpose a little discipline around here.

Until then, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands and don’t be a prick. I’ve always wanted to say that.

I’ve been Ash Sarkar. This is The Burner.




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