Stricken Boris Johnson in intensive care

Never surrender: “His outlook on the world is that illness is for weak people”. © Getty

Can government carry on with a sick leader? The tradition of covering up and carrying on is tenacious. But history shows that there is little to fear from a period of illness at the top.

Boris Johnson has a very weird attitude to illness, says his biographer Sonia Purnell who used to work alongside him as a journalist.

“He was intolerant of anybody who was ill. Until now, he has had a very robust constitution. He has never been ill until now, and this will be a huge shock to him. His outlook on the world is that illness is for weak people.”

A senior Cabinet minister has told the Telegraph this morning: “Knowing Boris as I do, he doesn’t believe in illness. Constitutionally, we never get ill. So, for him, the fact that he has got it, he will be really angry about it and frustrated.”

Political insiders believe that is why for days the government has covered up how serious Johnson’s illness was.

As early as last Thursday morning, the Guardian received a highly-placed leak: a bed was being prepared at St Thomas’s Hospital for the prime minister. His condition had worsened.

In reply, Johnson’s aides were emphatic. His condition had not deteriorated, he still had only “mild symptoms”, he hoped to be at work from Friday when his coronavirus isolation period was up.

The cover-up continued until Sunday, when his health apparently took a turn.

At about 7:30pm that evening, Johnson was whisked by car to the hospital. About 90 minutes later, Downing Street went public, saying Johnson had been admitted for tests just to be on the safe side.

Shortly before 8:30pm yesterday, further news came: the prime minister had been admitted to intensive care. Several sources say Johnson has required oxygen to help with his breathing. This has not been denied by Downing Street – although his official spokesman said that Russian reports that he was on a ventilator were “disinformation”.

Why do leaders so often like to pretend they are stronger than the rest of us?

History is pretty ruthless on this point. Ill health has long been considered a disqualification from power. That is why the Roman emperors took on superhuman qualities; the Byzantines used mutilation as a brutal means of stopping their enemies from taking power, and the health of medieval kings was directly linked to the fortunes of the nation – an idea called the body politic.

The former head of the UK civil service, Lord Kerslake, said yesterday that Johnson should “reflect” on his position.

Can government carry on with a sick leader?

Survival of the fittest

No, says columnist Simon Jenkins this morning. The cabinet cannot operate with half its members in varying degrees of isolation. Skype and Zoom cannot replicate the cut and thrust, the body language, the public and private exchanges of a truly deliberative forum. There has to be a conductor knowing when and how to bring the instruments of government into play. There has to be a boss.

Nonsense, says columnist Charles Moore. Consider Churchill. In December 1941, he had a mild heart attack when staying at the White House. In February 1943, he went down with pneumonia and was ill till the beginning of March. In August 1944, Churchill got pneumonia again and arrived at RAF Northolt with a temperature of 103. He was sick for more than a fortnight. The war in Europe was won in May, the following year.

You Decide

  1. If you are hurt or don’t feel very well, do you ever cover it up and pretend that you are fine?
  2. Do you think leaders need to be physically present to be effective? If your headteacher was away for a month, could the school still run properly?


  1. Make a get well card for the prime minister. You can send it to 10 Downing St, London SW1A 2AA.
  2. Some have taught that weakness is its own form of strength, from Christ’s idea that the meek “will inherit the earth”, to Gandhi’s belief in the power of the hunger strike and peaceful protest. Write a one-page essay about this profound paradox.

Some People Say...

“When danger is far off we may think of our weakness; when it is near, we must not forget our strength.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), former British prime minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A prime minister is not an ancient emperor or a medieval king, and government goes on without Boris Johnson in Downing Street. But after it was announced he was in hospital, two things happened. The value of the pound dropped and rumours began circulating that he was in critical care on a ventilator. The government denied this, calling it Russian disinformation. But the fear and anxiety caused by the news shows why governments try to downplay and hide any indication that the leader may be incapacitated.
What do we not know?
Sometimes it seems that leaders fear being seen as weak, more than they fear being ill. We can debate whether attitudes have changed since the days of Winston Churchill. Previous generations really did believe that getting ill was a choice and a sign of personal failure. Do we still think that? In the US, the discussion of the age and health of Donald Trump, and presidential candidates Bernie Saunders and Joe Biden, suggests we still want our leaders to be a little bit more than human.

Word Watch

Strong and healthy.
In this sense, it means the physical makeup of a person, especially with respect to health, strength, and appearance.
Expressing something in a clear and forceful way.
Roman emperors
The Emperor Augustus was the first Roman to be declared a god. To stop the hero-worship from going to their heads, the emperors were sometimes accompanied by a slave whose job was to remind them that they were, in fact, mortal.
The Byzantine Empire ruled parts of the east Mediterranean until 1453. Its system of government was so vast that we still use the word “byzantine” to describe large and complex organisations.
The Byzantines’s favourite body part to remove was the nose, a practice called rhinotomy. Since god was perfect, the emperor also had to be perfect and this was the unhappy fate of Justinian II in 695.
Body politic
A strong and healthy king meant a happy and prosperous country. The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) were blamed at the time on a sickly Henry VI and a hunchbacked Richard III.
Cut and thrust
A lively and competitive atmosphere or environment.
A process of thoughtfully weighing up options.
A meeting where views are exchanged.


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