A “historic and special relationship” outside 10 Downing Street in 2019.
Thursday saw the United Kingdom pass an important milestone: one year of life under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson. What was supposed to be a fascinating year of unpredictable political events has been rendered utterly dystopian through the COVID-19 crisis. Still, it’s worth looking back on what we have learned about the United Kingdom’s key issues — and about its current leader.
Johnson’s ascent to the position he has coveted all his life was through one of those Great British Anachronisms. When Theresa May stepped down after three brutal years of wrangling the irreconcilable factions of her party towards Brexit, Johnson was elected in her stead by Conservative party members, a tiny fraction of the U.K. electorate.
British politics might be a unique venue for success for someone with Johnson’s personal background. After attending Eton College, one of England’s elite boarding schools, he went on to Oxford and was a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club — an all-male dinner club whose members included former PM David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, famed for its destruction of the restaurants it visited.
From there, he became a newspaper columnist but was fired for making up quotes, only to edit the Spectator magazine before becoming a Member of Parliament — and then having to resign for lying over an affair he falsely denied having.
His tenure as the second Mayor of London is most remembered for the time he got stuck on a zip wire over the River Thames; his personal endorsement of a “Garden Bridge” project over the same waterway, which cost $54M of public money but was never built; and allegations of other wastes of money on vanity projects.
Any country whose politics involved even the faintest aroma of meritocracy would be uninhabitable for someone of Johnson’s pedigree. But he became an MP again and in the 2016 referendum, after some public hemming and hawing, backed Brexit.
His reward was to be named foreign minister by Theresa May, in an apparent attempt to placate the “Brexiteer” flank of her party (and to keep him inside her tent). After resigning his post over the government’s handling of the Brexit talks, Johnson set about plotting a course to Downing Street.
Once at Number 10, he appointed as his de facto chief of staff Dominic Cummings, former head of the “Vote Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum, one of the few figures in modern history to be held in contempt of Parliament for his refusal to answer questions of a Commons committee, and the man memorably described as a “career psychopath” by David Cameron, the former Conservative prime minister. Cummings has an outspoken history pushing for radical reform of the Whitehall establishment, but his appointment came alongside a cabinet more famed for their unswerving allegiance to Brexit than their political acumen.
Right away, the sole issue of concern was Brexit, with Johnson publicly committed to leaving the European Union on October 31, with or without agreement from the EU on the next stage of the process. The prospect of a “no deal” Brexit was met with widespread horror among the elites in London, but it would be hard to overstate the level of fatigue felt elsewhere with the apparent inability of the country’s political class to leave the EU after almost three years of trying.
Parliament became a major obstacle, with disparate factions of MPs suddenly unifying against the prospect of a “hard Brexit” led by Johnson. In response, Johnson embarked on an unparalleled campaign of chicanery. He purged long-standing Tory MPs who defied him. At a crucial moment, struggling to stifle unrelenting dissent, he unlawfully brought the parliamentary term to an end. This was overturned by the Supreme Court, but the die was cast: Johnson had teed himself up as the only person in the United Kingdom capable of taking on a gridlocked political establishment. If this sounds all too familiar to an American audience, it should — and if Johnson’s credentials as an outsider sound ridiculous in light of his posh background, so much the better.
The October 31 deadline came and passed, with Johnson forced to agree to an extension that Parliament requested from the EU. He called a snap general election, held in December and preceded by an unusually subdued winter campaign against a fractured Labour Party, which saw him make few promises besides “Getting Brexit Done,” a message distilled even further when it was painted on polystyrene blocks, duly demolished by a forklift driven by Johnson himself.
Britain rang in the New Year with an 80-seat Conservative majority and presumed decade in power for Johnson’s party. A swift Brexit was promised by January 31.
The rest of the year was supposed to be focused on negotiation of trade deals with as many nations as possible, and the conclusion of an agreement to extricate the United Kingdom from EU laws and regulations. That was always going to be a tight turnaround, even before the Coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson has cast himself variously as a roguish buffoon and man of the people, but his intellect and insider political acumen are beyond doubt. For years, his ambition to be PM was an open secret, the subject of documentaries and repeated jokes; in recent times, his quest for the highest office has taken on an air of inevitability against the backdrop of complete Tory dysfunction, much of it of his own making.
Under Johnson, the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 response has been abject and the country’s death rate has consistently been among the highest in world, far outstripping its European neighbors. More U.K. citizens died in the first three months of the crisis than did during the whole of the World War II.
Johnson himself has been accused of not taking the crisis seriously, allowing major public events to continue while downplaying the severity of the illness and delaying the implementation of national lockdown. But in reality, the capacity of the National Health Service to respond to a pandemic was questioned years ago — and nothing was done to prepare for the worst.
Johnson is an especially uncomfortable figurehead to tackle this crisis. His previous joking that his political hero was the mayor in Jaws, who insists on keeping beaches open even as citizens are being eaten at precipitous rates in populist defiance of reason, seems less funny in light of the pandemic. Johnson seems to want to believe in the “common sense” and “bulldog spirit” of the British people, but his administration is struggling with structural problems years in the making.
He now faces two major problems. First is his personality — which has always been a deeply divisive issue. He handsomely won the December election on the basis of a single-issue campaign, and a few voters seem to admire him. It’s also true that nobody dislikes Boris Johnson — but that’s because those who oppose him, loathe him. Outside of people who buy his bumbling everyman shtick, and people who wanted Brexit concluded at all costs, the rest of the electorate simply wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances. His personal approval ratings in Scotland have given Tory parliamentarians cause to fear for the future of the Union, and his approval ratings elsewhere have plummeted during the novel coronavirus crisis.
The other major concern has to be his capacity to remake the Conservative project in the United Kingdom. Johnson’s acolytes include new chancellor Rishi Sunak, a young and enthusiastic man with wide appeal, who exudes confidence. In his first four months as chancellor, Sunak has delivered multiple full-scale budgets to respond to COVID-19, each more distant from Conservative orthodoxy than the last. Just the mention of “state intervention” would ordinarily chill the blood of the most sangfroid Tories, but this has been a repeated theme of the government’s response. In part, it’s in keeping with other countries — and in many cases, it can be argued that supporting workers’ wages during lockdown, directly stimulating consumer spending, and subsidizing domestic renewable energy projects don’t go as far as they have in other countries, because to most Tories such policies are anathema.
Other issues have come to the fore. Johnson delayed publication of the Commons’ Intelligence and Security Committee report into Russian interference in U.K. politics for months. Last week, the government was embarrassed by parliamentarians successfully outmaneuvering the patsy candidate Number 10 had chosen to chair the committee and presumably sit on the report some more. The report was published this week and accuses the U.K. government of having done nothing to find out about Russian interference, despite widespread acknowledgment it would have been a foreign policy priority for the Russian government.
Elsewhere, the United Kingdom’s international status has been brought into sharp focus in the protracted row between China and the USA. Huawei’s involvement in the U.K. 5G infrastructure had been confirmed by Johnson, only for a U-turn to be made this month, apparently in deference to substantial pressure from Washington. Chinese investment in key infrastructure projects, including nuclear energy and steel production, is now coming under scrutiny from Tory backbenchers, forcing Johnson’s courting of Donald Trump and the long-standing Tory commitment to build things as cheaply as possible into even murkier light.
And if you believe the right-wing press, even the Union itself may be at risk, as polling suggests record support for Scottish independence (hovering around 52 percent, it’s not exactly a breath-taking surge). Johnson’s unpopularity among even Tory Scots is legendary, and his handling of the COVID-19 crisis compares unfavorably with the widely-praised focus of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
When Johnson embarked on a day-long tour of Scotland in July, the visit only reminded us of the limits of his appeal. As Republicans must be wondering what a post-Trump future looks like, so too must the Tories be asking themselves what life after Johnson may hold.
Johnson’s first year has gone differently than expected. A significant victory in December means little when Parliament is capable of organizing against you and your staff, especially when those staff can seem blinkered by disdain for working through the customary institutions. The coronavirus has highlighted the brutal degradation of support structures after a decade of austerity under Conservative rule, and may yet refocus popular opinion on welfare rather than sovereignty outside the EU.
International events are cued up to remind even the most patriotic Brits that the country’s role on the world stage is more markedly diminished now than it would have been even as part of the EU.
Only a handful of people would be mad enough to covet being prime minister at this particular point in British history, and one of them now inhabits Downing Street. What will the next year hold?
Simon Jones is reporter based in Glasgow for Politico, Al Jazeera, Le Monde Diplomatique, and others.