Yet it is a measure of how our horizons have narrowed considerably that the exhilarating prospect of throwing garbage, as well as the possibility of a socially distant trip to the garden center, can now be presented by ministers as a reward. for six weeks of self-denial. No one falls asleep at night dreaming of being able to unload mowing for six weeks. Yet after a month or more indoors, some of us have learned to take our sensations where we can: a cup of tea in the sun, a phone call, a friendly word with the neighbors when setting place garbage cans. The happiest people who are locked out are the ones who are most able to find comfort in small things, and it is this dramatic drop in expectations under pressure that could help explain the baffling paradox of politics right now. .
More than 21,000 people have died in hospitals alone, millions of people are losing or at risk of losing their jobs, coronavirus is tearing apart nursing homes from which residents are woefully unlikely to escape and front-line staff must shamefully risk their lives without, in some cases, the most basic protective equipment. New evidence emerges daily, most recently in Panorama on Monday evening, of shortcomings in planning an epidemic, and Britain’s potentially catastrophic delay in imposing a ban means we are far behind compared to other European countries to get out. Yet somehow the blame slips on our Prime Minister – 60% of Britons believe that a man-led government that missed five Cobra meetings on the coronavirus managed the epidemic well, according to YouGov, raising interesting questions about what might convince them that things were going wrong. Why?
The obvious answer is that the left has always underestimated Johnson’s natural relations with voters, even after winning a Brexit referendum followed by an overwhelming general election, and continues to do so now. Not everyone thinks about what you think, to put it simply: millions of Britons still actively love Johnson, or are ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. Those who put him on Downing Street last December are particularly inclined not to judge him harshly, as that would be admitting that they themselves made a terrible mistake; Conservative voters and leavers are much more likely than non-conservatives and remain voters to approve of his management of the coronavirus. But that doesn’t explain why a third of Labor voters, half of Liberal Democrats and 49% of the rest agree.
One possible explanation is that Johnson’s own near death experience was redemptive, encouraging those who feared not to take Covid-19 seriously enough to believe he had changed. Government briefings certainly did not deter the idea that intensive care had turned him from a libertarian hawk into a more cautious dove.
But another is that when asked to judge government strategy, people first think of their daily experience of foreclosure. Some indeed suffer miserably, victims of domestic violence trapped with their attackers and their families crushed in tiny apartments, dismissed, expelled and bereaved. But that still leaves a large silent mass of Britons, still spared the economic crisis and so far better than expected.
Whatever right-wing columnists say, the great revolt announced has not materialized: a study by Kings College London has classified less than one in 10 Britons as “resistant”, actively fighting against it. Another 44% were classified as suffering, people in distress by locking in even if they deemed it necessary. But the most important category was that of “acceptors”, people who fit surprisingly well and did not lose sleep over it.
Acceptors are disproportionately middle-aged, so perhaps more likely to have accumulated the comfort that makes locking more bearable – a garden, savings, safe work that can be done from home – or simply more afraid let the virus kill them if they go outside. But I suspect that many are also natural conformists, inclined to adapt rather than to rage against their fate. How else to explain YouGov’s extraordinary discoveries, when tracking public mood changes, that happiness increases again after falling at the start of locking, while stress and fear decrease after an early spike? Logically, the situation is no less frightening. However, after the initial shock, it seems that some people adapt as humans have adapted throughout history to the existential threat: by cowering, focusing on little pleasures and resolutely blocking the worst.
According to the King’s College study, acceptors spent far less time than others thinking about the virus. These are the people who take things one day at a time instead of worrying about tomorrow, taking care of cleaning the attic or weeding the garden, turning off the news because it’s depressing – or they listen, getting upset with journalists who ask upsetting questions about the doctors’ deaths. Their positivity helps them cope, but also makes them slow to question authority. They will be dangerously open to the defense that Johnson is apparently trying to build before any public inquiry, that is, it was an unprecedented global crisis in which everyone has made mistakes but has nevertheless did his best. (Monday’s return speech emphasized that the NHS was fortunately not overwhelmed – as if it were the only measure of success. It sounded like a taste of the arguments to come.)
The long-term success of this defense depends on whether the acceptors continue to accept or are warned of what could be a brutal recession to suffer. But no opposition to Johnson will succeed unless she first understands why, no matter what, so many people want to believe in him so much.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist