EACH weekday at 8am a group of half a dozen of us or so gather for half an hour in the heart of Durham city to pray together.

In truth sometimes these 30 minutes will be the best part of my day as we read psalms, give thanks to God and pray for the needs of the world. Often this will involve praying for our leaders in our city in its many institutions as well as praying for those in the NHS, teachers and other public servants as well as praying for national leaders including our Prime Minister.

With the announcement of the birth of his new baby son we gave thanks last week for the gift of new life and prayed for the PM, his wife and their family in addition to praying for counsel and wisdom for him as the Omicron variant brings new challenges for us all in its spread.

Of course, Boris Johnson has had a few other things to worry about over the past week as he seeks to get a grip on the events around him. A politician from an earlier era – Bobby Kennedy, the younger brother of John F Kennedy – used to keep in his desk drawer an extract of a letter sent by the poet John Keats in 1819 to his brother and sister-in-law – George and Georgina Keats – which said: “While we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events. While we are laughing it grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck.”

One of the past criticisms of Boris Johnson has been his tendency to govern with a smirk, to rely on a bombastic bluster which leads to an impression that this is government carried out by a nudge and a wink, where veracity is replaced by vaudeville and statesmanship by showmanship.

Writing in the Scotsman back in 2019, Lesley Riddoch noted the tendency of the PM to employ a smirk as a way of replying to criticism of untruthfulness or poor judgement. Riddoch’s comments extended beyond the PM to his advisers and colleagues and carry an alarming prescience after the release of the video last week which led to the resignation of Allegra Stratton. Riddoch wrote: “Behind the scenes they’re laughing at us, laughing at democracy, laughing at the very notion that fairness, democracy, procedure, facts, official government reports or parliamentary conventions are of the slightest interest to their Del Boy crew.”

But as the poison fruit of Covid continues to grow in the wide arable land of events, the smirk that governed an oven-ready Brexit feels like it has lost its charm. The smile that accompanies alleged rule breaking loses its appeal in response to the very real stories of loss and bereavement which took place under the same restrictions.

It was in Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote of the tendency of a new king to “smile and smile and be a villain”. The shared hope for all of us is that the smiles of our PM reflect not a villainy but a confidence and hope that even in the midst of unenviable challenge he is up to the job for a time such as this.