A year after Johnson’s swaggering Greenwich speech: and 100,000 dead


The government says nobody could have done more: but it’s clear poor leadership on Covid has brought the UK to this pass

It was announced last week, to nobody’s excitement, that Sir Kenneth Branagh will take the role of Boris Johnson in a Sky TV drama about the first weeks of the pandemic. If Branagh’s casting indicates that this is to be conceived as a Shakespearean tragedy, with Johnson in the lead, then it would seem doomed from the start. The classic tragic hero has just a single fatal character flaw that proves his undoing. With Johnson, where do you start?

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As an opening scene in that drama, it will, anyhow, be hard to beat the speech that the prime minister gave almost exactly a year ago – perhaps the last moment in which he fondly imagined that all the world lay before him. The speech, delivered in the grand surroundings of Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich on 3 February 2020, set out his vision for a buccaneering global Britain, high on union flags and free trade. Johnson had not long returned from his post-election beach frolics in Mustique with Carrie Symonds. Brexit had finally been “done” in Parliament Square three nights earlier. No opposition troubled his horizon. Labour was leaderless; Farage pointless. Even Michael Gove, his limp-daggered Brutus, had been co-opted to the cause.

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