Just as Britain braced for the most crucial weeks of this great struggle, its commander was taken from the field. Boris Johnson, relentless climber of life’s knotty ladder, had been dragged from the top at the very moment it mattered most, like in a Greek tragedy, and somehow fitting for this strangely antiquated figure. For a moment, there was serious concern that the country was about to lose its most consequential prime minister since Margaret Thatcher, the man who had remade the country in his image, first by convincing it to vote for Brexit and then by ensuring it was not lost in the wreckage of his predecessor’s failing government.
The real story proved more prosaic. Protected by modern medicine, Johnson was able to recuperate from COVID-19, eventually moved out of the intensive-care unit, and was today released from the hospital a week after he was admitted. Still, this story—one not tied to some kind of fated tragedy or test of personal virility—is revealing.
Johnson’s illness touched on something unique about him and his hold on Britain that, for good or bad, has come to define both. In falling ill, Johnson came to embody the national struggle against the coronavirus, just as he had come to represent Brexit in 2016, and, before that, as London’s mayor, the 2012 Olympic Games. In his recovery there is something symbolic too—even as Britain grapples with hundreds of deaths a day from COVID-19 to rank among the worst-hit countries anywhere in the world, his tale offers some hope and optimism.