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Winston and Boris

Derision and criticism have poured in from all quarters, as the official Covid toll stands at over 1,50,000 deaths in the UK, and the poorly worded defence by Boris Johnson‘s secretary, ‘we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather‘, has only added to the insensitivity of entitlement, disdain, and revelry, as displayed by 10 Downing Street

BHOPINDER SINGH | New Delhi |

Locally hailed as the ‘Greatest Briton ever’, former Statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Winston Churchill, evokes a starkly different emotion in the former colonies for factually darker reasons.

But what is undeniable is his felicity with words that won him a Noble Prize for literature, flamboyantly charming personality (with multiple eccentricities), and finally an unmatched legacy that led the historian Sir Arthur Bryant to say, ‘The age of giants is over’, when Churchill passed away.

When commissioned as a Cornet (equivalent to a Lieutenant) in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars Regiment at rugged Nowshera, fighting the marauding Afghan tribesmen, young Churchill honed his love for Bacchus, especially his favourite tipple for posterity i.e., whisky. The later day Churchill became synonymous with his bowler hat, omnipresent cigars, acidic wit, and his prodigious appetite for Scotch.

The epic drinking regimen would famously include a morning whisky ‘mouthwash’, soda with whisky on his bedside whilst at work alone, champagne with lunch, vintage reds and whites at dinner, occasional brandy, cognacs and martinis, and off course, a Scotch at night to call it a day! As the larger than life and often flawed leader colourfully said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me”. Churchill’s love affair with the spirits spilled into oil-oncanvas with his Jug with Bottles, where the keen amateur artist combined his greatest pastimes, painting and alcohol.

Decades later, another irrepressible occupant of 10 Downing Street, Boris de Pfeffel Johnson would unabashedly imitate his childhood hero, Churchill. From modelling his speeches, flashing the ‘V’ sign, painting, grandiloquent expressions, gaunt walking style, owning a pen that was once Churchill’s, lunchtime snoozes etc., the comparisons between the two are odious, endless, and deliberate.

Boris Johnson even penned a most fawning biography of Churchill, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. However, like his complex hero and alter ego, Johnson has also demonstrated indefensible streaks and brazen attitudes that sit at the very extreme of the rather contemporaneous British mindset i.e., accusations of an unhinged adventurer and unprincipled opportunist, especially in trying times like the pandemic (leading to some of his own allies distrusting his recklessness).

Perhaps trying to preempt or mitigate the ghosts of accusations that haunt his governance style, Johnson had reflected in his book, ostensibly on how Churchill, ‘might be thought of as a man whose love of lush language exceeded his good sense, who lacked that vital note on sincerity’. This pertinent question on disappeared ‘good sense’ now pricks Johnson as the beleaguered Prime Minister fights to stay on in 10 Downing Street, accused of Partygate with the now infamous ‘bring your own booze’ party during the first lockdown.

Popular derision and criticism have poured in from all quarters, as the official Covid toll stands at over 1,50,000 deaths in the UK, and the poorly worded defence by Johnson’s secretary, ‘we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather’, has only added to the insensitivity of entitlement, disdain, and revelry, as displayed by 10 Downing Street. Opposition Leader Keir Starmer has upped the ante on what he called Johnson’s ‘ridiculous lies’ and asserted, “After months of deceit and deception, the pathetic spectacle of a man has run out of road. He’s finally been forced to admit what everyone knew, that when the whole country was locked down, he was hosting boozing parties in Downing Street”.

The Churchillian situation is magnified by the stony-faced backbenchers from Johnson’s own Conservative party who refuse to rally behind the cornered leader; some offered conditional support, but then some called for his resignation by stating that his position was ‘untenable’ ~ much like Churchill’s own palace intrigues, wrangling and jousting for positions within the Conservative ranks. But the 21st century of post-Cool Britannia is not the accommodating and forgiving United Kingdom of the 1940s and 50s, as now optics matter.

The enfant terrible or ‘Boris the Menace’ in 2022, could well be forced out of office for partying too hard in/at the job, and yes perhaps for overindulging with his tipple! As only a Winston Churchill or a Boris Johnson could score such self-goals, the biggest Conservative majority in the last 30 years could well be undone, barely two years into the fiveyear Parliamentary term. The man who ironically suffered nothing politically, despite his questionable stand on the contentious Brexit issue (instead he reaped the status of his promise to ‘get Brexit done’), may end up paying that price, for his personal recklessness, indulgences, and cavalier attitude.

The lifelong punter now pins his hopes on an official enquiry clearing him of personal culpability in breaking the law, or even a situation warranting a criminal investigation by police, as both situations would basically imply the final straw, politically. In the British Parliamentary system, the safety of the Prime Ministerial tenure is best captured by Churchill’s profound words, “The opposition occupies the benches in front of you, but the enemy sits behind you”.

Therefore, the immediate challenge for Johnson is really in keeping his own Conservative flock, predominantly on his side. His unprecedentedly ‘unreserved’ apology in advance has already softened the turf for him, and there is a bit of a wait-andwatch with murmurs of a possible whitewash attempt with overhauling of his team and announcement of some favourable policy measures.

The carefully cultivated image of an endearingly buffoonish, well-meaning, fumbling mumbling Englishman who enjoys a bit of life and is human enough to admit his odd mistake, may just bail out Johnson, the quintessential political survivor. But personality politics of a bouncy persona always have diminishing results, that is a lesson that Johnson may well absorb from the career of Winston Churchill, who was Prime Minister for nearly nine years. The best of Churchill’s extraordinary leadership sprung forth in the most trying times. In these pandemic times, that is exactly where Boris Johnson has some catching up to do.

(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd) and former Lt Governor of
Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)