Bold, bumptious and bombastic, Boris Johnson greeted 2020 by promising that it would be a “fantastic year” when “we unleash Britain’s potential”, “restore confidence for people and businesses” and “unleash a pent-up tidal wave of investment”. His “people’s government” would make the Union stronger, the environment cleaner, the streets safer. It would improve the nation’s infrastructure, boost the NHS, renew schools and back its scientists. “There is an incredible future ahead for this country,” our newly elected Prime Minister declared.
Well, that worked out well, didn’t it? Johnson’s “Global Britain” ends the year quite literally a pariah, the sick man of Europe, cut off from the rest of the continent politically, diplomatically and, now, logistically. The Covid-19 pandemic that we have battled for the past nine months is out of control once more. Our economy is on life support. We have amassed horrifying debt. The country is exhausted, demoralised, fearful and fed up.
It would be nice to think the worst was over, with the prospect of mass vaccination on the horizon, but it is not. Instead the two ever-present storylines of 2020 – Covid-19 and Brexit – are finally converging at the year’s end to produce a perfect storm of calamity, a true nightmare before Christmas, the bleakest of midwinters. At the very moment that we are facing a resurgent pandemic, we are crashing out of the European Union with, at best, a skeletal trade deal or, at worst, none at all.
The pandemic was clearly not Johnson’s fault, but his response to it has been lamentable. Pathologically averse to taking hard or unpopular decisions, and with a cabinet of featherweights unable or unwilling to impose discipline on him, our recklessly cavalier Prime Minister has been playing catch-up from the outset.
He imposed the first lockdown far too late in March, mocking the “bizarre autarkic rhetoric” of those calling for tough measures against the looming threat. He failed to prepare for a second wave during the summer lull, urging us instead to eat out and return to offices. He scorned Keir Starmer’s call for a “circuit breaker” shutdown to forestall the second wave in October, saying it would be a “disaster”, only to reverse his position a wasted fortnight later.
Now, incredibly, Johnson has done the exact same thing again. On 16 December he declared that cancelling Christmas would be “inhuman” and denounced Starmer for suggesting such a thing. He allowed shops to build up stocks for a final bumper week of shopping, pubs and restaurants to lay in food and drink, families to plan for long-overdue reunions, and millions of people to book flights and train journeys.
Then, on Saturday (19 December), he performed the mother of all U-turns, crushing hopes of a few days’ respite from so much misery and triggering a mass exodus from the capital that will doubtless carry Covid-19’s highly transmissible new variant to the furthest corners of the country. “As Prime Minister, it is my duty to take the difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country,” he declared, without any acknowledgement of his failure to do so earlier. Although cancelling Christmas was the right thing to do, it is hard to see how Johnson could possibly have handled the decision worse. Even the Daily Telegraph, his mouthpiece, called it “a bitter blow, terrible timing, a recipe for chaos”.
Unlike Covid-19, Brexit emphatically is Johnson’s fault. Without his charismatic leadership of the Leave campaign the UK would never have voted to quit the EU in 2016. Without his baleful influence Britain would never have opted for the hardest of hard Brexits. And it was the Prime Minister, egged on by Dominic Cummings, who rejected the EU’s offer to extend the transition period beyond 31 December in June as the gravity of the pandemic became fully apparent, cynically calculating that that the costs of Brexit would scarcely be noticed amid the even greater costs of Covid-19.
It is Johnson, moreover, who continues even now to resist the compromises necessary to strike the trade deal that this country so desperately and urgently needs. That he does so is yet another example of him postponing a hard decision to the last possible moment, notwithstanding the howls of anguish from beleaguered British businesses. It is also a sign of weakness, not of strength. He will not, or dare not, upset those Eurosceptic fanatics on the Tory backbenches to whom he owes his ascendancy. He has, it seems, turned “fuck business” into official government policy.
What will Johnson say in this year’s New Year message? If he possessed a shred of decency he would show some contrition and apologise for his government’s egregious errors during 2020. If he possessed an ounce of honesty, he would admit that Britain is in a shocking state: fractured, dispirited, devastated by illness, economically ravaged, burdened by debt, governed by draconian regulations and isolated in every sense. If he were a true leader, he would seek to prepare us for a “winter of discontent” that is likely to be every bit as bad as that of 1978-79 – collapsing businesses, soaring unemployment, an overwhelmed NHS, chaos at our ports, resurgent Scottish nationalism and more.
Johnson will say nothing of the sort, of course. The man who promised us normality by Easter, by the summer, by Christmas, and assured us that the chances of a calamitous no-deal Brexit were “a million-to-one against”, will doubtless invoke yet another fantastical vision of a “Global Britain” freed from the coronavirus by our world-beating vaccines and prospering mightily in our new-found liberation from the EU’s shackles. Only fools would still believe him.