THE Prime Minister is back. In order to demonstrate this, he emerged from No 10 yesterday morning, and gave an address to the nation in which he said… well, not very much, actually. Which indicates that the purpose of the exercise was to let us all know that he was back.

There was the clear implication that the next few days will produce some sort of outline of how and when the restrictions of the lockdown will gradually be eased, along with the standard exhortations to keep observing precautions to protect the NHS. But we knew that already; there has been speculation for several days now about the timetable for relaxation and clear statements of intent (if not detailed programmes of action) from the devolved governments.

In any case, it was to be expected for three reasons: first, it seems to have worked, or at least to have coincided with an evening out of the spread of the disease.

The second point, to which Mr Johnson alluded, is that indefinite lockdown was always going to be economically unsustainable; the NHS, and all the other measures being brought forward, need to be paid for, which won’t happen unless and until we can get more firms back to normal. And the third is the blunt reality that, no matter how compliant they are in the short term, people won’t observe these kinds of restrictions forever.

There is, in any case, a cross-party consensus – indeed, almost unanimity – on “following the science”. Naturally, that means choosing which scientists to listen to, and revising policy in line with what seems to be working, and as more information emerges. It doesn’t mean there are no political decisions or mistakes being made. The point is that, rightly or wrongly, that’s been the approach taken by the British Government, followed by the Scottish Government and backed by the Labour Party.

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So it shouldn’t matter which politician presents it but it does, and that is because Boris Johnson is a politician who brings out the worst in his opponents.

Everything is unimaginably different from two months ago, which makes it hard to remember that Mr Johnson has been Tory leader only for nine months, and had a General Election mandate as Prime Minister only since December. Even without coronavirus, few people would have predicted last July that Mr Johnson would have unified the Tory Party, ensured that Brexit happened (nearly on time), that the Conservatives would win with a landslide majority of 81, and that the Prime Minister would enjoy a colossal personal approval rating.

Quite a few people still seem to find it impossible to believe, even now that it’s happened. Perhaps it is because Mr Johnson is such an exceptional – indeed, improbable – politician that he produces such vitriol in some of his opponents. But the bad news for those who think of him as an obvious charlatan, or buffoon, or power-crazed authoritarian is that they are in a minority– at least for now.

The Prime Minister’s current position is the more remarkable when you consider the enormous swings of fortune that have brought him to this point: he’s had major setbacks as often as he’s been lucky – which may be an indication that he knows how to handle them. A global pandemic that will almost certainly be followed by a global recession, in the middle of the UK disengaging itself from the EU, presents extraordinary challenges that no one anticipated but, paradoxically, it may also allow the Prime Minister a wider range of options.

The UK Government’s strategy, in medical terms, is not very different from that of any other country, even if you think it has made mistakes or is managing some things (testing is an obvious example) worse. In the grand scheme of things, until there is a vaccine or some natural development of immunity, the only thing anyone can do is take measures to prevent their health system from being overwhelmed.

What is much more within the Government’s power, and will be the real test for Mr Johnson, is the economic response. The Chancellor has announced unprecedented levels of spending (and has unsurprisingly become very popular, even though no one had heard of him three months ago), but while that will be necessary, it’s got to come from somewhere in the end.

Those circumstances give Mr Johnson the leeway to spend in a way that Tories would normally characterise as reckless, but they also make it likely that a more flexible, deregulated and low-tax atmosphere for business will need to be a priority. The new economic conditions also give him an excuse to alter some of the Government’s previous spending plans – this is a perfect opportunity, for example, to ditch HS2.

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The commitment to have concluded the exit arrangements from the EU by the end of the year with or without a deal actually looks less risky now than it did a couple of months ago – the economic reconstruction on both sides of the Channel is going to require new markets, supply lines and trade deals in any case. More attention may be given to the direct economic consequences of any policy, rather than how it affects British, or EU, pride or status. At the same time, any alteration to that timetable is probably now politically survivable, as long as it’s temporary.

The Prime Minister’s own brush with the coronavirus may have given him a more sombre appreciation of the realities of the disease, and of the efforts of those who are attempting to deal with it. It is also undeniably politically helpful, in that the public (with the exception of those whom he was never going to win around anyway) has the sense that he has personal experience of its frightening and distressing effects.

But, as his statement yesterday made clear, Mr Johnson’s natural disposition is an optimistic belief that, if you wrestle problems to the ground and refuse to give up, eventually you will prevail.

No matter your view of him, it has to be conceded that his own track record tends to give him some reason for confidence. And whatever deficiencies he is accused of – lack of gravitas, a cavalier disregard for fine details, impetuosity – it may be that a hopeful determination to pull together in the face of adversity is just what the public currently expects. Whether Mr Johnson can maintain that will be the test of his premiership.

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