Love him or hate him, Brits rally around a stricken Boris Johnson

Christina Boyle, Laura King
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing St. on March 18, 2020. He is now in intensive care because of COVID-19.  (Ray Tang / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Back in December, when Britain was in the midst of an angry, divisive general election campaign, Amy Woodrow Arai went door to door in her southeast London neighborhood, desperate to divert votes away from Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. To no avail: Johnson’s party romped to victory.

But now that the usually ebullient 55-year-old prime minister is in intensive care – a victim of the coronavirus outbreak many believed he lagged in addressing – Woodrow Arai is feeling “a weird mix of emotions” about a flamboyant politician who has both ardent devotees and furious detractors.

When it emerged late Monday that Johnson was being transferred to the ICU, barely 24 hours after he was hospitalized, “I suddenly felt so fearful and worried for him and his family,” said Woodrow Arai, a 41-year-old accounts manager. “For the man, but also him as our prime minister.”

She’s not alone. Many Britons who openly detest Johnson’s cheerleading for Brexit and the Conservatives’ record of painful austerity policies have nonetheless found themselves, somewhat to their own surprise, rallying around the ailing leader.

In many ways, the angst over Johnson reflects the larger anxiety assailing Britain as it weathers a public-health calamity whose like has not been seen in a century. On Tuesday, the country’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 6,100, and the daily death rate outpaced that in devastated European neighbors such as Spain and Italy, where fatalities are beginning to ease.

Because of Johnson’s air of sunny invulnerability – a trait many critics find maddening – his newfound place among the pandemic’s sickest patients marked a jarring moment. That was magnified by the surreal landscape of locked-down London, where iconic landmarks are thinly trafficked and convivial pubs are shuttered even as spring warmth and sunshine have suddenly brightened up the city.

Johnson, the first major world leader so seriously stricken by the virus, remained in the ICU unit of London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital on Tuesday, his office said, adding that he was being given oxygen but was breathing on his own.

The government portrayed the situation as serious but not dire. The prime minister, a spokesman said, had not been diagnosed with pneumonia, a potentially dangerous complication of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Nor, by official accounts, had he been placed on a mechanical ventilator, a move that generally heralds a deeply worrying deterioration.

Official reassurances, however, were undercut to some extent by a sense that a too-rosy picture had been painted initially, which left many Britons shocked by the prime minister’s move to the ICU only a day after he was admitted to the hospital, ostensibly for “tests,” and after repeated upbeat references to his “good spirits.”

Questions have also been raised over the role of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, whom Johnson appointed to fill in for him as needed. Raab, 46, is a relatively little-known figure, lacking the prime minister’s elocutionary flair and charisma.

One of Johnson’s more high-profile deputies, Michael Gove, took the lead role Tuesday in a round of morning radio and television interviews about how the prime minister had fared overnight – but then announced soon afterward that he himself was self-isolating because a family member had mild symptoms sometimes associated with the virus.

For the moment, Raab’s role remains limited in scope. He did not, for example, step in Tuesday for the prime minister’s weekly one-on-one chat with Queen Elizabeth II, which was switched from a personal audience to a phone call after the outbreak began.

The queen joined many dignitaries and world leaders, including President Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in sending well-wishes to Britain’s now-bedridden leader. Sometime rivals such as former Prime Minister David Cameron, whose resignation after the shocking Brexit referendum result ultimately paved the way for Johnson’s ascension, also joined in voicing warm support.

But the outpouring is far from universal. Some Brits scoffed at a Twitter campaign, carrying the hashtag #ClapForBoris, urging people to stand on their doorsteps and applaud in support of Johnson on Thursday evening as they have done in previous weeks in gratitude to Britain’s beleaguered healthcare workers.

"Absolutely not," wrote one Twitter user, angrily citing Johnson’s jokey comments about happily shaking hands with people on a March 3 hospital visit that included the coronavirus ward. “I wish him a speedy recovery, but the man does not deserve applause."

Comedian Matt Forde suggested that the sense of deep unease surrounding Johnson’s illness had more to do with the symbolic importance of the country’s leaders, and the peril of the moment, than about the prime minister personally. Besides Johnson, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, have all tested positive for the coronavirus or exhibited COVID-19-type symptoms.

“We live our national story through them,” Forde wrote on Twitter. “I never thought I’d be so emotional about Boris Johnson.”

Actor Hugh Grant, who marshaled his celebrity to campaign against Brexit and Johnson, chimed in online. “I haven’t been his greatest supporter but v[ery] much rooting for the PM tonight,” Grant – who played a floppy-haired prime minister in the movie “Love Actually” – said in a social-media post.

The coronavirus outbreak comes at a delicate moment for Britain, where nerves are still raw and tempers short nearly four years after the country’s narrow vote to leave the European Union. Brexit formally took place at the end of January, but difficult negotiations lie ahead.

An ambitious 11-month timetable set by Johnson for striking a complex new trade deal with the EU, already criticized as unrealistic, appears even more so now, as the public-health crisis tramples over other government business and makes face-to-face talks between negotiators impossible.

But many Britons appeared willing to put divisions aside in the face of the coronavirus – even when it comes to a leader whose facile manner is blamed by many for fostering discord.

“The words ‘Boris Johnson’ and ‘seriousness’ are not often encountered together. He has spent much of his life breaking rules and behaving self-indulgently,” commentator Martin Kettle wrote in a column in the Guardian newspaper. “But his hospitalization overleaps all that.”

Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and staff writer King from Washington.