Johnson’s political fortunes may turn on success of vaccine rollout

Vacillating prime minister’s record on making hard decisions suggests rocky road ahead

It is the conventional wisdom at Westminster that Boris Johnson’s greatest deficiency as a leader is his unwillingness to make important decisions until the last possible minute.

In Brexit negotiations and the coronavirus pandemic, he has repeatedly put off the moment of truth until there was no alternative to the choices he made – a thin Brexit deal on Christmas Eve and a national lockdown this week.

Many political leaders have found postponing decisions to be a successful strategy, however, and Helmut Kohl made "aussitzen", or sitting it out, into a principle. His patience and his capacity to sit out difficult situations without rushing into action helped him to outwit and survive more intellectually sophisticated rivals as German chancellor for 16 years.

Angela Merkel, who has remained in office for almost as long, also tends to avoid taking a position until public opinion has moved ahead of her. During the pandemic, however, she has usually been quick to recognise the need for tougher restrictions, which have often been delayed by the consensus required for a federal response.


Johnson’s problem with the pandemic has been that his reluctance to make tough decisions has had immediate, real-life consequences for the health and economic wellbeing of British citizens. The decision to open schools on Monday, only to close them on Tuesday, not only threw parental plans into disarray but gave teachers no time to prepare remote learning plans.

The government’s decision to cancel this summer’s GSCE and A Level exams is an acknowledgment of how the lockdown will magnify the impact of inequality on children’s futures.

Scale of the problem

The prime minister has until now sought to navigate a precarious path between the advice of his health experts and the demands of his party. But most of those MPs who have railed for months against restrictions on the economy and personal freedom are likely to be more muted when they debate the lockdown at Westminster on Wednesday.

The scale of the problem facing the health service, with more than a million people now infected and another 50,000 or more new cases every day, makes the case for lockdown irrefutable. And the vaccine rollout offers a glimpse of the end of the struggle against coronavirus and of an early return to normal economic activity.

Johnson has promised to publish daily vaccination figures from next week as he aims to give the first dose to more than 13 million of the most vulnerable in the next six weeks. That programme's success or failure will shape the public's verdict on the government's handling of the pandemic and could determine the prime minister's political future.