Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?
The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.
The intense interest in Boris Johnson’s health reflects today’s reality: 24 hour news and instant comment and speculation on social media. It was very different in the past – in war and peace.
In September 1918, Britain’s wartime prime minister David Lloyd George was struck down by the deadly Spanish flu, like so many others. Shortly after giving a speech in Welsh to Manchester’s Welsh community, Lloyd George was taken ill, and spent the next nine days in a temporary medical ward in the town hall. Bulletins to the media were brief, and made no mention of the seriousness of the prime minister’s condition. He finally returned to London later in the month, still wearing a respirator. Almost two weeks later, he recorded, “I had my first cabinet yesterday and it tired me so that i am not yet fit for much work”. His biographer, John Grigg concluded that, “He seems to have been very acutely, perhaps critically, ill at a time of mounting crisis in the world, and when he needed to be in full vigour…” [Grigg, Lloyd George, War Leader 1916-18, Allen Lane, 2002]
Few would have demanded greater transparency during a world war. It was a similar story in December 1941, when Churchill had what was assumed to be an incident of angina pectoris when opening a window at night at the White House in Washington. His doctor, Sir Charles Wilson (later Lord Moran), noted later how it impossible it would have been to demand that the prime minister took weeks of rest. (He was visiting President Roosevelt weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had brought the United States into the second world war.) Moran expressed his fear that disclosing the incident risked “Publishing to the world that the PM was an invalid with a crippled heart and a doubtful future .. at a moment when America has just come into the war, and there is no-one but Winston to take her by the hand”.
The cover-up of a later, more serious medical crisis during Churchill’s peacetime premiership in 1953 is unthinkable today. In June that year, 78 year old WSC suffered a massive stroke during a dinner for the Italian prime minister, de Gasperi. The guests were quietly ushered out. Many thought that the PM’s slurred speech reflected the amount he had drunk during the dinner. During the following days, Churchill insisted on chairing a cabinet meeting and gave private secretary John Colville strict orders “Not to let it be known that he was temporarily incapacitated and to ensure that the administration continued to function as if he were in full control.” Within a few days, Churchill was almost completely paralysed. Moran didn’t think that the prime minister would survive the weekend.
Churchill’s doctors issued a bulletin to the media saying, “The prime minister has had no respite for a long time from his very arduous duties and is in need of a complete rest. We have therefore advised him to abandon his journey to Bermuda [where he was to have met President Eisenhower] and to lighten his duties for a month”. Letters were sent to several media barons, including former wartime minister Beaverbrook. As a result, Fleet Street took a vow of silence on the prime minister’s health crisis, something they would have done for nobody but Churchill.
During WSC’s recuperation, Britain was effectively run by Churchill’s son-in-law Christopher Soames, private secretary Colville and the cabinet secretary. (Churchill’s heir-apparent Anthony Eden was enduring a medical crisis of his own at the same time.) WSC bounced back remarkably quickly, and ironically outlived his guest at that ill-fated dinner. Alcide de Gasperi died later in 1953, while Winston lived on into the era of the Beatles, dying in 1965.
As Churchill displayed in 1941 and 1953, leaders are very reluctant to let go of the reins of power, even temporarily in a health emergency. While Britain is not fighting for its survival in 2020, unlike in 1941, the pressures on Boris Johnson were immense even before he contracted coronavirus. Like Lloyd George in 1918, he is fighting a deadly illness that threatens everyone in the country. He is in very good hands at St Thomas’ Hospital, and it’s hard to imagine his doctors disclosing details of his health in the way that Lord Moran did for Churchill, writing a whole book on Churchill’s health. Moran’s Struggle for Survival was largely responsible for the myth that Churchill suffered greatly from depression, a distortion of the war leader’s mental health.
Turning back to Boris Johnson, it appears that Number 10 painted an overly optimistic picture of the prime minister’s condition last week. This increased the shock when Johnson was admitted to hospital, and then intensive care, within 24 hour. It must have increased the pressure on the untested Dominic Raab, foreign secretary and first secretary of state, as he started deputising for the sick Johnson. Many will debate how much we have a right to know about the health of our leaders. However, a degree of transparency is the best policy to avoid rumours and speculation filling the communications vacuum.
I send my very best wishes to Boris Johnson, his partner Carrie and the rest of his family at this incredibly difficult time.
John Grigg, Lloyd George, War Leader 1916-18
Martin Gilbert, Winston S Churchill, Volume VII, The Road to Victory 1941-45; Volume VIII, Never Despair, 1945-65
John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, Volume 2, 1941-1955