No one has ever doubted Boris Johnson‘s ability to charm the nation by playing the fool. He’s a man who can win friends dangling on a zip wire above the Thames, a Union Jack on a stick in either hand. Heck, he can even attract a round of applause by driving a bulldozer through a pile of bricks.
But yesterday he had to show he was a leader for hard times, as well as a court jester when a lighter touch is required.
When Boris arrived at the Downing Street press conference, he looked like a man who had suddenly felt the sharp, electric jolt of history coursing through his arteries.
The hair was parched, his face lined with deep ravines and his eyes – goodness, those eyes! As rheumy and wizened as an Old Testament prophet. It was as though all the ghosts of his future had just visited him at once. Well, I suppose 126,000 deaths will do that to a Prime Minister.
To think that 12 months ago, when the PM sat behind a desk in Downing Street and announced he was pulling down the shutters, he was smooth of skin and plump of cheek. He looked playful, boyish.
When Boris arrived at the Downing Street press conference, he looked like a man who had suddenly felt the sharp, electric jolt of history coursing through his arteries
Now, on the first anniversary since he issued that historic stay-at-home dictum, his face looked as stretched and flattened as an old piece of leather. Bluster and bombast were notably absent. It was time for a few home truths.
Boris admitted the past year had been like fighting ‘in the dark’ against a ‘callous and invisible enemy’. With a resigned tone, he added he would be dealing with the fallout from Covid for ‘as long as I live’.
Beside the PM stood his two swooping angels of death, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance. Whitty had also been knocking back a bit of brutal honesty serum.
He gloomily observed that the virus was probably going to be with the human race forever. Boris sucked his gums ruefully. And to think, when this is all over, the three of them still have an inquiry to look forward to.
It had been a day of sober reflection for all of our leaders.
Heading the tributes was the Queen, who spoke of the need to ‘pause to reflect on the grief and loss’ and ‘pay tribute to the immeasurable service of those who have supported us all over the last year’.
What a lodestar Her Majesty has been in a time of crisis. Has any world leader acquitted themselves as humbly? Has any articulated themselves as eloquently? Meanwhile, it was the spirit of selflessness on which the Prince of Wales chose to focus.
Charles issued a video message, his ruddy cheeks and spaniel eyes betraying his own frustration with being cooped up inside all this time.
He paid tribute to those we have lost, remarking on ‘the inexpressible pain of parting’, which suggested the Prince put rather more thought into these sorts of speeches than most politicians.
To think that 12 months ago, when the PM sat behind a desk in Downing Street and announced he was pulling down the shutters, he was smooth of skin and plump of cheek. He looked playful, boyish
As for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, they chose to quietly visit a pop-up vaccination centre at Westminster Abbey. An unshowy act of support for those helping to provide the country with a route out of this mess.
Come the midday gun, the rest of the country fell silent.
At Waterloo station, in normal times host to a stampede of busy travellers, what few commuters were there suddenly halted their journeys and stood with their heads bowed beneath the terminal’s main clock.
Outside hospitals, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and other medical staff gathered and observed their own socially distanced vigil.
Then, at 8pm, across the country people lit candles, flashed torches or held their phones on their doorsteps in a heartfelt tribute to the victims.
Earlier, over in the House of Commons, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle offered a message of optimism, saying ‘green shoots were emerging’ and ‘hopefully we’ll have a world that comes back to all of us’.
We must hope so. What a pig of a year it has been.