Boris Johnson celebrates the end of his first year in Downing Street this week. While he scored a huge election win last December, which could see him in office for much of the 2020s, the wild ride that his premiership is proving means his term could yet end much sooner.
Perhaps the most revealing insight into Johnson’s style of governing came last year from his Cabinet colleague Michael Gove. Prior to December’s election, Johnson’s administration lacked a majority in the House of Commons and there were a significant number of commentators who wondered whether he might become the shortest serving premier in UK history — a ‘distinction’ held by George Canning who served for only 119 days in 1827.
At that time last Autumn when the government was losing a significant number of votes in the House of Commons, Gove relayed a story where Johnson tried to rally the Cabinet. He said to them that “it is like motocross, you have to hang on and it will get bumpier and bumpier and all this stuff will fly in your face. But in the end, you hang on and you will get through”.
Johnson, who is a keen biker who was given a second-hand Yamaha ‘off-roader’ for Christmas by his fiancee, may have said this partially in jest. However, it perfectly sums up his extraordinary, gambling approach to power.
The government is now losing public support and he now also faces a new opposition leader in Keir Starmer who some polls indicate is the most popular since Tony Blair from 1994-1997 before he entered Downing Street.
From the very start of his premiership he took a more adversarial, ‘scorched-earth’ approach to Brexit than predecessor Theresa May. The culmination of this saw him suspend Parliament, irregularly, in a decision that was ultimately over-ruled by the Supreme Court.
Another major risk was pushing for a pre-Christmas election, the first December ballot for a century, at a time of extraordinary political volatility. Were it not for the fact that some opposition parties made a series of strategic and tactical blunders, Johnson may well have faced a far tougher campaign and closer result.
In 2019, Johnson’s gambles therefore generally paid off, including his big win in December and securing an EU exit withdrawal deal which saw the United Kingdom leave the Brussels-based club in January. Yet, the risk-taking style of governance that worked so effectively last year has proved more problematic in 2020.
‘Outlier’ coronavirus pandemic strategy
In February and March, Johnson originally opted for an ‘outlier’ pandemic strategy, styled by some around as a ‘herd immunity’ approach, which was out of kilter with countries in much of the rest of the world which had imposed restrictive measures faster and/ or utilised much wider ‘mass’ testing.
Fast forward several months to July and, despite multiple U-turns from Johnson, the United Kingdom may end up with the highest, per capita, deaths in the world. A growing number of UK officials now assert the lockdown should have been introduced faster with data also indicating that the nation may be the hardest hit, economically, of any G20 country.
To be sure, the calls that Johnson has had to make during the corona crisis have been very hard. Yet his approach to making them has too often been confused and chaotic reflecting the fact that his skill set (‘big picture’ rather than details-focused) and style (flamboyant and undisciplined) is much less suited to the demands of the pandemic era.
No public transport strategy
Only last week, for instance, Johnson said he wanted “people to start to go back to work [in the office] now if you can”. Yet, this potentially major shift in policy comes despite unaddressed challenges, including the fact that there is no public transport strategy to accompany it given the reduced capacity of buses, trains and the underground because of social distancing rules.
Johnson previously had much goodwill from the nation after his own brush with death from coronavirus, and was riding high in the polls. Yet, the government is now losing public support and he now also faces a new opposition leader in Keir Starmer who some polls indicate is the most popular since Tony Blair from 1994-1997 before he entered Downing Street.
This is a febrile political stew for Johnson to wade through, and what could yet make it much worse is the next phase of Brexit. Irresponsibly, Johnson has said that the United Kingdom must leave the transition period from its EU membership in December — come what may.
This decision is not in the national interest, but allows Johnson to be perceived to have delivered on his 2019 pledge to “get Brexit done”. So totemic is this issue for the prime minister that he is, now, unquestionably willing to leave the transition period at the end of the year, even if no trade deal is agreed with the EU with the significant further economic damage this could bring after the corona crisis which is already causing the worst downturn in 300 years according to the Bank of England.
So the combination of such a disorderly Brexit and continued coronavirus crisis may yet see Johnson’s political luck finally run out. Despite his hold on power seeming impregnable only a few months ago, his premature departure from Downing Street in these circumstances would be a growing possibility providing a potentially fitting bookend to a truly rollercoaster premiership.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics