Boris Johnson’s baby is the perfect symbol of his personality-driven politics | Martin Kettle | Opinion

Less than a month ago, Boris Johnson was close to becoming the first prime minister to die in office since the Victorian era. Today he is the third prime minister of the 21st century to be celebrating the birth of a new baby in No 10. It would require a heart of stone – and doubtless there are some of those where Johnson is concerned – not to be moved by this vertiginous private ascent from darkness into light. As a metaphor for the optimistic way the prime minister would like a troubled country to see the coronavirus crisis, it is beyond audacious. You could not make it up.

Let’s acknowledge, if nothing else, that today’s announcement was a brilliantly executed piece of political tradecraft. The operation in Downing Street is still a lot smarter than many would like to think when they see it preside over those wooden and evasive daily briefings. That’s because, over the 24 hours preceding the announcement that Carrie Symonds and Johnson had had a baby son, No 10 played the media brilliantly.

On Tuesday, Downing Street was studiously evasive about whether Johnson, who had only returned from his Covid-19 recuperation the previous day, would be taking his first prime minister’s questions in the virtual Commons reassembled last week. The evasiveness triggered speculation that Johnson’s health might in fact not be up to the task. No 10’s silence yesterday morning fed the speculation still further. How many journalists began to question Johnson’s and the government’s continuing fragility? Then came the news of the birth. Chapeau.

Any birth beneath the shadow of death is bound to touch the emotions with special poignancy. Think how struck so many of us have been by the sights, sounds and feel of the seasonal rebirth of nature during the Covid-19 crisis. Note also that, in Downing Street briefings this week, the questions from the public have expressed the longing of grandparents to see grandchildren again. In our collective distress and anxiety over the virus and the lockdown, spring’s promise is tangible proof that life will go on. The birth of a baby is the same.

The birth of a child to the country’s leader is also, inescapably, a moment that brings the much wider population together too. Johnson’s death, had it occurred, would have transcended the many raw political and other judgments about him as an individual. Similarly, the birth of his and his partner’s son now also vaults across much of the bitterness that many will always feel about his political career – a bitterness that, it is crucial to understand, large parts of the population do not feel towards Johnson in any way.

The Blair family with baby Leo.

The Blair family with baby Leo. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Yet there is still something inescapably different about this particular prime ministerial birth. Johnson is a personality politician of a kind Britain has never known. He is leader of the Conservative party because he is Boris, not because he is Johnson. He is prime minister with a large parliamentary majority for the same reason. The Brexit vote of 2016 might very well not have happened without him. He consistently breaks rules in all sorts of ways. It is an essential part of his incontinent personality. Now he has done it again by becoming the first unmarried prime minister to have a child in No 10.

Do not deceive yourself into thinking this child will now be allowed to grow up in the anonymous manner of his No 10 predecessors Leo Blair and Florence Cameron. Baby Johnson is likely to be a much more public part of the Boris brand and the Johnson prime ministership than Leo or Florence because Johnson is a very different kind of leader.

The new baby is the embodiment of a prime minister who does the job in his own way, who prefers to govern through the media rather than through parliament (his absence from PMQs today was neatly symbolic, as well as understandable), who chooses to float above the quotidian matters of government in the manner he perfected as mayor of London, who prefers cabinet courtiers to departmental heavyweights – and who, as Blair’s former communications chief Alastair Campbell has correctly identified, is more interested in “being” prime minister than in “doing” the job. The baby fits perfectly into this highly individual, iconoclastic form of “being” rather than “doing” leadership.

There are two ways of thinking about the Johnson prime ministership. On the one hand, he leads a government whose only serious purpose is to break Britain from the European Union and its regulatory regimes. On the other, it is a government held together by Johnson’s idiosyncratic mix of English nationalism, social liberalism and activist one-nation Toryism. Covid-19 has played to this latter version of the government, not the anti-regulatory, pro-Brexit version. With the pandemic and its consequences now so consuming, the idiosyncratic version – more than ever dependent on Johnson himself – is the one in the ascendant.

Is there anyone out there who still thinks the role of the individual in politics is trivial when measured against the struggle of class against class, and the clash of historic forces? Johnson’s career is a living and breathing negation of such thinking. The prime minister has already provided, over many years, a fund of evidence for the view that individuals make an enormous difference. The birth of the politically most significant of Johnson’s many children provides yet another irresistible example.

Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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