Public Policy

July 24, 2020

Boris Johnson: Reflections on his first year as UK Prime Minister

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Written by Verity Barton & Ian Bettles, Public Policy UK 

As Boris Johnson marks one year in office, he has arguably faced more challenges in the past 12 months than any peace time Prime Minister before him, and not all of his own making.

He’s gone from losing a working Parliamentary majority and proroguing Parliament twice (though technically, only once) to renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union and winning the largest Conservative majority since the 1980s.

With 2020 set to be a year of ‘levelling up’, Johnson is facing a global pandemic, an economic crisis and has had to hit the re-set button on his premiership – all while battling and recovering from COVID-19 himself (something that won’t be aided by sleepless nights after welcoming a new baby to 10 Downing Street).

As politicos rush to pass comment on his first year in office, whether they give him a pass or fail is probably more influenced by their politics and position on Brexit rather than premised on an impartial assessment of what’s gone well and what hasn’t.

If all you did was look at trending topics and hashtags on Twitter, the Tories’ most vociferous opponents would tell you that Johnson and the Conservative Party had lost the next election. Yet – as is so often the case with social media – the rhetoric doesn’t always match the reality.

The electorate is a lot more patient and forgiving than the media wants us to believe. Recent polling shows the Conservatives consistently polling above 40% and maintaining its lead over Labour; so too does Johnson over Keir Starmer.

There have been mistakes or errors of judgment: albeit hindsight is a wonderful thing. Missteps arguably include proroguing Parliament, a belated reaction to the coronavirus and being slow to respond to vandalism of statues and memorials during recent protests. In the wake of Dominic Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham, the PM’s defence of his adviser was poorly received and the issue had greater cut through than other political ‘gates’ in recent years, but weeks later, people have moved on and care more about the Government’s plans for jobs, the economy and beating the pandemic.

With tough decisions looming in coming months and years, the question remains: how long the Party can balance its traditional constituency of low taxing, small government Tories with its new-found base that sees (and needs) a role for government intervention in previous Labour heartlands?

Year 1: A Game of Two Halves

Boris unites a toxic party, wins an election landslide and Gets Brexit done:

Boris Johnson’s maiden year as Prime Minister can be seen as something of a game of two halves. The first part, in which he inherited a divided party and a minority administration from Theresa May, was dominated by Brexit; the second part, by coronavirus, and the Government’s response to the pandemic.

The first half, which culminated in the December General Election where Boris Johnson won a resounding 80 seat majority, looks triumphant for the Prime Minister in hindsight, though this seemed fragile at the time.

Many saw the new administration’s goal to renegotiate the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and take the UK out of the EU by the (already extended) October 31st deadline as too optimistic and bordering on fanciful. Taken with Downing Street’s miscalculated prorogation of Parliament – and the subsequent successful Supreme Court challenge – the move by MPs to take control of proceedings made it look like the newly appointed Prime Minister was in office, but not in power.

While Johnson did succeed in securing changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, the more crucial victory came with the political declaration which set out the plans for the second and current, phase of negotiations. It essentially saw a move from seeking a close and comprehensive post-Brexit relationship to aiming for a more tightly defined, looser association via a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

This paved the way, in part, for the Conservative Party’s resounding victory in the December election, which also became something of a referendum on Labour’s polarising leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party’s confused stance on Brexit. Despite a perceived unwillingness to face scrutiny on the campaign trail, Boris Johnson’s slogan to ‘Get Brexit Done’ resonated with voters in Brexit-voting, Labour heartlands. And where the Labour Party promised multiple ideas, some not obviously and immediately beneficial to the electorate such as nationalisation, Johnson served up simple, centrist policies like more money for the police and NHS staff. With a newly secured Parliament majority, Boris Johnson delivered on his pledge to take Britain out of the EU on January 31st, 2020, firing the starting gun on a tight 11-month period to negotiate a future deal.

Now with a mandate and commanding a Conservative Party more united than at any time since the heyday of Thatcher, Johnson echoed Tony Blair in appealing to an electorate whose vote he had ‘borrowed’, and pledged to focus all of his Government’s efforts on ‘levelling up’ economic opportunities across the UK.

The famous quip by Harold Wilson that “events, dear boy, events” are most likely to blow governments off course seemed apt for the second half of the first year of Boris Johnson’s premiership. The coronavirus pandemic swept the world in the early months of the year, and the Government’s decision to join many others and enforce a lockdown of society in order to protect health services and restrict the spread of the virus has dominated everything since it was introduced in March.

Now, with the virus seemingly receding in the UK and Europe, Boris Johnson wrestles with the balancing act of trying to reopen society and kickstart the economy, whilst cautioning that any subsequent waves of infections could cause further disruption. In response to the extraordinary measures, the Government has been more interventionist than any in recent memory, and is ramping up spending commitments to support sectors, firms and individuals affected by the lockdown and the pandemic. Whether these actions will be enough to curb the virus, protect the economy and keep public opinion on side, time will only tell.

He marks this year anniversary with a trip to Scotland, where support for IndyRef2 is growing despite the Coronavirus arguably demonstrating some of the benefits of being part of the Union: the ability of the UK Government to provide all Home Nations with a massive rescue package for months on end to individuals, companies and sectors; whilst Nicola Sturgeon has had the freedom to plot her own course in responding to the pandemic. Time will tell whether the result of the Scottish Elections pushes Johnson into accepting a second vote (and all that that may bring). As 2020 has shown, and indeed the last few years have offered, politics and public life have become increasingly hard for Governments to predict, shape and control.

Next week, we’ll contemplate Global Britain’s approach to trade with the EU and the rest of the world and explore just what this all means for the future direction of the Johnson Government.

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