Little more than six weeks ago, Boris Johnson was pictured jubilantly bashing a tiny gong to celebrate the fact he had “got Brexit done”.
He began 2020 in the most powerful position any prime minister had enjoyed for more than a decade – with a comfortable Commons majority, a lame-duck Labour leader, and the luxury of a five-year term stretching ahead.
He had grand plans for “levelling up” Britain, shaking up Whitehall and remaking the Tory party. And he carried his responsibilities lightly, taking a 10-day Caribbean break over Christmas with his partner.
It is now clear, though, that just as Theresa May’s premiership was broken by Brexit, and Gordon Brown’s defined by the financial crisis, Johnson will forever be remembered – for good or ill – as the coronavirus prime minister.
And while Brown’s decade at the Treasury and dour demeanour made him the ideal leader for the banking crash, nothing in Johnson’s background or political makeup have prepared him for telling the British public to stay out of the pub.
Temperamentally upbeat, with a strong appetite for risk, he is notoriously a (tongue in cheek) admirer of the mayor in Jaws – “a gigantic fish is eating all your constituents and he decides to keep the beaches open. OK, in that instance he was actually wrong. But in principle, we need more politicians like the mayor!” he (half-)joked, when he was running for City Hall.
Some observers, including in his own party, fret that this optimistic disposition – combined with a strong anti-authoritarian instinct – has slowed the government’s response to the virus, making Johnson and his team shy away from the most draconian interventions.
The government maintains that every decision throughout the rapidly mounting crisis has been guided by the science – and argues that it is better to do “the right thing at the right time” than to be pressured into kneejerk overreaction.
It also acknowledges that while saving lives is paramount, it has a responsibility to protect livelihoods and jobs too.
Johnson is not much of an ideologue. Even before the coronavirus, his government’s first budget was planned to junk austerity, at least for public investment projects if not the threadbare welfare budget.
And Tuesday’s economic package underlined the fact he is perfectly willing to tear up Tory orthodoxy if that is what it takes to weather the storm – though help for businesses was noticeable faster in coming than for vulnerable households.
But he has appeared to find it much harder to loosen his grip on another tenet of conservatism – personal liberty.
He has so far been unable to muster either the dirigisme of Emmanuel Macron or the moral heft of Leo Varadkar when urging the public to do the right thing, and stay at home.
Johnson dodged the question on Tuesday of whether his septuagenarian father was right to say he might “need” to go to the pub.
And even on Wednesday, when asked whether it was “immoral” to ignore the government guidance, he stressed the importance of “liberty” as a British value, and said people would make their own decisions – before urging them to be “ruthless” in following the rules.
It appears to sit uneasily with Johnson to impose stringent restrictions on the public’s personal lives – so much so that he has at times appeared almost ambivalent about it: nudging or urging instead of ordering.
But he knows it cannot last. He acknowledged on Wednesday that as the virus continued to spread the government might have to go “farther and faster”.
Instead of the heroic mayor who held his nerve and let the bathers keep coming as the shark circled, he appears to have been cast in the role of the leader who shuts down London – not the one he thought he was auditioning for. As one shellshocked Downing Street insider put it this week: “Events, dear boy, events – I know what that means now.”