How luck ran out for Boris
Boris Johnson celebrates his first year in Downing Street next week. The British prime minister could be therefor much of the 2020s, but the wild ride that his term in office is proving could end it much sooner.
Perhaps the most revealing insight into Johnson’s style of governing came last year from his Cabinet colleague Michael Gove. Before the election last December secured a parliamentary majority of 80, a significant number of commentators 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.
Last autumn, when the government was losing a significant number of votes in the House of Commons, Gove relayed a story about Johnson trying to rally the Cabinet. He told them: “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, a keen biker whose fiancée gave him a second-hand Yamaha off-roader for Christmas, might have said this partially in jest. But it perfectly sums up his extraordinary, gambling approach to power.
From the start of his premiership he took a more adversarial, scorched-earth approach to Brexit than his predecessor, Theresa May. This culminated in his suspension of Parliament, an unlawful act that was overruled by the Supreme Court.
Another risk was pushing for a pre-Christmas election, the first in December for a century, at a time of extraordinary political volatility. Had some opposition parties not made strategic and tactical blunders, Johnson might well have faced a tougher campaign and a closer result.
A disorderly Brexit and a continued coronavirus crisis could bring about Johnson’s premature departure from Downing Street.
In 2019, Johnson’s gambles generally paid off, including his big win in December and securing a withdrawal deal that took the UK out of the EU in January, but the risk taking that worked so effectively last year has proved more problematic in 2020.
In February and March, Johnson opted for a pandemic strategy styled by some as a “herd immunity” approach, while much of the rest of the world imposed restrictive measures more quickly and tested many more people. Despite several U-turns from Johnson, the UK may end up with not only the world’s highest death toll in proportion to population, but also with the worst economic effects of any G20 country.
To be sure, the calls that Johnson has had to make during the pandemic have been hard, but his approach to making them has too often been confused and chaotic; his skill set (big picture rather than details focused) and style (flamboyant and undisciplined) is not well suited to the demands of the pandemic era. On Friday, for instance, Johnson changed his advice from “stay at home if you can” to “go back to work if you can.” Thismajor shift in policy contravenes official guidance for non-essential office staff to work from home, and for everyone to avoid public transport unless absolutely necessary.
Johnson enjoyed much public goodwill after his own brush with death from the coronavirus, and was riding high in the polls. But his government is losing public support and he faces a new opposition leader in Keir Starmer who some polls indicate is the most popular since Tony Blair from 1994 until he entered Downing Street in 1997.
This is a febrile political swamp for Johnson to wade through, and what could make it worse is the next phase of Brexit. Irresponsibly, Johnson has said there will be no extension to the UK’s EU membership transition period when it ends in December, come what may. That is not in the national interest, but allows Johnson to claim 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 EU without a trade deal, despite the significant further economic damage this would bring after a pandemic that has already caused the worst downturn in 300 years.
So Johnson’s political luck may finally run out. Despite his hold on power seeming impregnable only a few months ago, a disorderly Brexit and a continued coronavirus crisis could yet bring about a premature departure from Downing Street — a fitting bookend to a truly rollercoaster premiership.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics