That much-discussed “brush with death” is proving to be very valuable for Boris Johnson.
Having decided his bout of coronavirus was due to carrying 17.5 stone on a frame designed for about 12, the PM has released a video walking with his dog in which he urges the nation to join him in losing weight. Cute pup, humble leader, both walking the walk. Zing! go the headlines.
And if his team of Right-wing marketing whizz-kids added a slogan that ran “LOSE WEIGHT, PROTECT THE NHS, SAVE LIVES” it’d be a simple, powerful message that could well shift a lot of flubber from the sofa.
Instead, his obesity campaign has been timed to coincide with a BOGOF at Nando’s.
The UK’s obesity problem is extreme. Two thirds of adults, and a third of children aged 11, are overweight or obese. It has probably added to our 45,000 Covid-19 deaths – the NHS found 60% of those who ended up in intensive care with coronavirus have been overweight.
But Britain was obese before coronavirus. Sugar was one of our biggest problems long before most of us had ever heard of Wuhan. And in July last year, while running for the Tory leadership, Johnson suggested scrapping the sugar tax which has already forced manufacturers to change their recipes, saying it disproportionately affects the poor.
Obesity also disproportionately affects the poor. Half of the top 10 worst areas for obesity in the UK are also in the top 10 for poverty. And just before Johnson opened his stupid mouth, scientists reported it also increased the chances of getting bowel, kidney, ovarian and liver cancer.
Johnson’s big idea, then, was to protect the poor by letting them die horribly, earlier, and more expensively.
Today’s announcements about getting GPs to advise patients to lose weight, banning junk food adverts before 9pm, and ending BOGOFs would be marvellous… if only GPs didn’t already do that, the Chancellor hadn’t just advertised junk food on the evening news, and the government itself wasn’t subsidising, er, BOGOFs.
Around 40,000 deaths every year are thought to be attributable to obesity. It costs the NHS billions, whether it’s through heart disease, cancer or worn-out bones. Getting Britain fitter, its poorest people healthier, and food providers of all sorts to behave more responsibly would save almost as many lives, this year alone, as coronavirus has cost.
The fact that Johnson, and his administration, can’t co-ordinate their policies on this, just as they haven’t on face masks, lockdowns, or trips to Barnard Castle, is going to prove more destructive than doing nothing at all. It erodes trust, destroys support, and withers faith.
In short, every fatty in the land who hears Johnson’s moralising will shrug, and have another slice of cake. Not because the things he has said and suggested today aren’t right, but because he has less credibility than a stale slice of lemon drizzle.
A brush with death often leads to an urge to improve things. But whatever Covid-19 did to Johnson, it did not make him any better at his job.
Being Prime Minister means providing leadership, clarity, and direction. It involves setting targets, making difficult choices, and a blend of bullying, cajoling and begging people to come with you. There’s no clarity in telling people to eat a half-price burger and then go for a run, no point to scrapping a tax that works, and no leadership in failing to grasp the deep and complex problems that mean poorer people have worse lives and deaths.
All Johnson has done, on every issue, is to blunder about like a morbidly obese butterfly. One minute here, the next over there, never settling or achieving, and knocking over plenty of things on the way. When his legacy is finally totted up it will not involve things he did, but the things he allowed to happen to others.
The truth is that fixing the long-term poverty of finances, health and ambition which afflicts huge swathes of the country he runs is difficult. It’d take more than 5 years, or 3-word slogans, or manipulation of the next 24 hours of the news cycle.
But that’s all Johnson’s got.
His team know how to campaign, which usually takes about 6 weeks. They do not know how to govern, which has an arc that spans years. They are their own Meghan Markle – constantly mistiming their clashes, and ignoring the job description.
So they go for the short-term wins. Go to the pub, have a half-price pizza, get on a plane. Parade around with the dog, look busy.
And then, a week later and entirely predictably, the air bridge collapses and the pizza becomes a heart attack. To this government, next week is as unimportant as next year – different headlines, different scandals, time to move on.
Except, for 40,000 or so people this year, it’ll be too late, because they were too fat, too poor, and too under-privileged to survive past Christmas. And next year there’ll be another 40,000, and the year after, and the next, and the next. In the 5 years of Johnson’s expected premiership, 200,000 people will die, because they were overweight and their Prime Minister had too short an attention span to do anything about it.
Still, a nice photo opp with the dog. Pretending to be interviewed, without any actual journalists there to ask awkward questions. And let’s all remind people this PM almost DIED , guys, and the fact that his week in hospital was the only time his premiership had a positive poll rating is entirely coincidental.
But let’s get all the journalists to write “brush with death” a few more times, just in case, yeah?
Because even if this Damascene conversion was worth the back of the fag packet it was written on, we’d still have to wait for Johnson to enter a care home, move to the north, lose his job and get a zero-hours job at Yodel before he’d fix anything else.
For a man who’s had access to the levers of power for more than a decade, he’s managed to do remarkably little. But in failing to decide whether we should spend our pounds, or shed them, he has achieved a cock-up that means he may just have killed more people than any other world leader this week.
Chew on that.