Tomorrow it will be a year since Boris Johnson won his “stonking mandate” in the general election, and what a year it has been. From managing the Coronavirus crisis, to becoming gravely ill with it himself, to his quest for a Brexit trade deal, to dealing with calls for a second Scottish independence referendum, it’s impossible to summarise every aspect of his premiership in one article. But here, at least, are some takeaways from 2020, and what we have learnt from them.
Even Johnson’s biggest enemies would struggle to deny that he has shown huge levels of dynamism during this year, epitomised by the fact that he tried to soldier on during his initial fight with Coronavirus. Alongside becoming a father again, he has had to juggle a pandemic, and one of the most complex negotiations of all time, while also trying to spark a green industrial revolution. In an article for The Times earlier this year, James Marriott explained: “Energy is the central principle of Johnson’s career”.
On this note, it will be interesting to see what projects Johnson takes on in 2021, and how much these will cost. The Government has, of course, had to invest huge sums of money in PPE, the furlough scheme and other Coronavirus measures, but 2021 will see much more pressure on ministers to explain how they’re going to pay for all this, particularly with the emergence of the COVID Recovery Group, which has immense concerns about the economic price of lockdown.
Johnson’s £12 billion plan for the environment, in particular, is one that will continue to attract criticism, not only about its viability but affordability in a time of national emergency. Nigel Lawson recently called it “absolutely mad” and “crazy”. “I think you have to see it to a certain extent in the psychology of Boris Johnson, who loves big projects irrespective of the cost”, said the former Tory chancellor, in a description that’s hard to deny given Johnson’s current plans.
More of a moderate than his critics think
Last year, a number of commentators accused Johnson of being “hard right” and a dictator. Then, without any sense of irony, they were incensed when he became one of the last leaders in Europe to impose a lockdown. Now that he has implemented draconian measures, it turns out the people most likely to call him a dictator are predominantly on the Right (and against lockdown).
Once famous for his libertarianism, Johnson’s personal philosophy has been tested greatly by this crisis, and he comes out of it as a politician more inclined to compromise than his enemies might like to admit. This has not only been the case with lockdown, but with other issues, such as the Government’s obesity strategy. It could best be described as a “halfway house” designed to please libertarians and interventionists, which many will not have expected from a man who previously promised to review sin taxes. How this personality trait plays out in the last stages of Brexit negotiations will be interesting to see.
Relaxed on immigration
Johnson’s attitude to immigration and asylum is much more liberal than the media suggests. During his time as Mayor of London, he called for earned amnesty for an estimated 400,000 people living illegally in London, and his premiership has already seen him introduce a set of relaxed policies.
In September, for instance, he reversed a decision made by Theresa May that forced overseas students to leave four months after they finished their degrees (they can now stay in the UK for two years). In an even more significant move, he offered three million Hong Kong citizens over to the UK, following China’s introduction of a new draconian security law.
More recently, and discreetly, he abandoned net migration targets. As I wrote for ConservativeHome earlier in the year, Johnson “is averse to using numbers” in this regard “viewing them as an arbitrary measure of how successful an immigration system is.” How this goes down with voters who wanted to “take back control” remains to be seen.
Quiet on the culture war
Given Johnson’s career in journalism, including being Editor of The Spectator from 1999 to 2005, he has been uncharacteristically quiet on the culture wars. Perhaps he is taking a leaf out of Keir Starmer’s book, who has reportedly been told not to get involved in them by Joe Biden’s campaign team.
But many people would like the Prime Minister to adopt a more definitive position on these matters, particularly after a summer in which they watched Churchill’s statue defaced under the guise of anti-racism, and Sadiq Khan create a “Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm” to decide what legacies should be celebrated in London.
Some of the most contentious societal issues seem to have been delegated to other Tories. Liz Truss, for instance, has been fighting against the concept of self-identification for one’s gender, Kemi Badenoch made a powerful stand against Critical Race Theory, and the Department of Education has asked universities to prove their commitment to free speech in order to receive Coronavirus-related funding. All of these steps matter, but Johnson needs to be more vocal on these issues, otherwise outsider parties might use them to make headway in the next general election.
An underestimated trait
Something underestimated about Johnson’s premiership is that he has exhibited huge loyalty in challenging situations. In spite of the fact they eventually parted ways, the Prime Minister stood by Dominic Cummings following his trip to Barnard Castle, and during the time Priti Patel was accused of bullying, though his words were mocked, Johnson called for MPs to “form a square around the prittster.” When defending his team, Johnson is able to weather the media storm best.
One of the common criticisms of Johnson is that he’s not a “details” person. Coronavirus presented huge challenges, with Johnson accused of implementing lockdown too late, not ordering enough PPE and overseeing a flawed Test and Trace programme. No doubt mistakes have been made and this has been a terrible time.
But the Government has also been able to pull off huge logistical challenges, from increasing the number of Coronavirus tests up by hundreds of thousands, to ordering 350 million vaccines – in what was, actually, an enormous gamble (that has since paid off).
The most significant test for Johnson will come this weekend. Can he get Brexit done? As with lockdown and the obesity strategy, we could see another move towards compromise, although whether it pleases Remainers or Leavers remains to be seen. On the other hand, given Johnson’s propensity towards huge projects, do not be surprised if No Deal fits the bill.