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30 November 2020

A year on, the UK has paid an appalling price for Boris Johnson’s election victory

Through his shameful conduct, the Prime Minister has debased his office and trashed Britain’s global reputation. 

By Martin Fletcher

The 12 December anniversary of Boris Johnson’s “stonking” election victory over the weakest opposition in memory looms, and what a year it has been. Not so much an annus horribilis as what our classically-trained Prime Minister might, in another context, call the “annus horribilissimus”. 

Deep within me I can summon a modicum of sympathy for our Great Dear Leader. To be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic so early in his term was cruel. Even Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, would have struggled. But the pandemic has exposed him for the weak, vacillating and incompetent leader that he is, and the country is paying an appalling price.

He failed to prepare for the first wave in the spring, or the second wave in the autumn. He failed to stockpile PPE, protect care homes, provide testing or impose swift lockdowns. Lacking a coherent strategy, he has “veered like a shopping trolley” between authoritarianism and libertarianism, between science and political expediency, between saving lives and saving the economy. Now we’ve been granted a brief respite from our terrible tiers so we can go out and spread the virus for five days over Christmas.

The result is the worst of all possible worlds. Despite spending more money fighting Covid-19 (£280bn and rising) than any other G7 country save Canada, we have also suffered the second highest death rate after Italy. 

[See also: The biggest mistakes made by Boris Johnson’s government during the Covid-19 crisis]

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The pandemic was unavoidable. Brexit was a choice. Last summer the European Union (having mysteriously survived all those Brexiteer predictions of its imminent collapse) offered to extend the transition period beyond 31 December, but Johnson in his wisdom said no. Thus chaos will be piled on chaos a month from now. 

A post-Christmas surge in Covid will almost certainly coincide with bedlam at our ports, disrupted supply lines, higher prices, and shortages of food, fuel and medicines. An economy forecast to contract by 11.3 per cent in 2020 (its worst performance since 1709) will suffer several more percentage points of lost growth over the next few years with or without the “oven ready” deal Johnson repeatedly promised us 12 months ago.

All those trade agreements he promised have failed to materialise  not even one with Trump’s America. His “global Britain” is cutting foreign aid, disbanding the Department for International Development, cracking down on immigration and consumed by a narrow, mean-spirited nationalism. The pandemic has destroyed the myth that our small island can raise the drawbridge and “take back control” in this age of globalisation. 

Far from strengthening the United Kingdom, Brexit is hastening its disintegration as support for Scottish independence surges and Northern Ireland’s fragile peace comes under threat. Far from becoming a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames, we face a mountain of new red tape and higher taxes to fill the black hole in the public finances. 

As the costs of Brexit have become ever more apparent, and the benefits ever more illusory, who but a handful of crazed zealots will be celebrating our “liberation” on New Year’s Eve? And how extraordinary that in last week’s spending review statement, Rishi Sunak failed to mention Brexit once, its enormous economic consequences notwithstanding? Even among its advocates Brexit has become a taboo subject, a dirty word.

Covid and Brexit apart, Johnson faces a third grave charge, namely that his shameful conduct has debased his office, weakened the institutions of government with all their checks and balances, and tarnished Britain’s reputation in the world.

He has explicitly condoned the breaking of international law. He has undermined cabinet government by stuffing his own with pliant mediocrities (remember them all dutifully tweeting their support for Dominic Cummings after he blatantly breached the lockdown rules?). He has sought to bypass parliament and politicise the civil service. He has attempted to cow the judiciary and independent media.

[See also: How Priti Patel became unsackable]

The list goes on. He has ousted honest and capable public servants, often through smears and anonymous briefings, while rewarding cronies with jobs, peerages and lucrative contracts. No other prime minister has been reprimanded by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, as Johnson was last month, for “packing the composition of interview panels with allies” and “the growth of unregulated appointments”.

He has brazenly and shamelessly refused to dismiss ministers and top aides no matter how egregious their transgressions. He stood by Priti Patel despite a report concluding that she bullied civil servants, prompting his adviser on ministerial standards to resign in protest. He stood by Gavin Williamson despite the A-level results fiasco. He kept Cummings despite his Barnard Castle escapade. He ignored Robert Jenrick’s malodorous approval of Richard Desmond’s £1bn housing development. He refused to suspend a Tory MP accused of rape, but removed the whip from another Conservative, Julian Lewis, who won election as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee and published the report into Russian interference in British politics. 

Instead of seeking to unite our fractured country, Johnson has frequently taunted the half of the country that voted Remain. He governs through infantile three-word slogans. He prefers fantastical visions – UK space commands and wind farms powering every British home within nine years – to policies rooted in reality. If he really wants Britain to be the “world leader” in green energy, why not end the ten-year freeze on fuel duty? 

Johnson is so profligate with public money that senior civil servants have sought an unprecedented 17 “ministerial directions” to signal disagreement with spending decisions they consider risky or wasteful. He has obfuscated, dissembled and played fast and loose with facts, earning at least two rebukes from the UK Statistics Authority. 

He has made so many vacuous promises – of “world-beating” apps, of putting a “tiger in the tank” of the Brexit talks, of sending the virus packing within 12 weeks, by the summer, by Christmas, by next Easter – that he has lost all credibility. As John Major observed in a brilliant speech on 9 November, “false optimism is deceit by another name”.

A year on from Johnson’s election victory, I struggle to think of a single way in which the country has benefited from his premiership, and I’m evidently not alone. His approval rating has plunged to -24. Labour has overtaken the Tories in the polls. Despite an 80-seat majority he struggles to win key parliamentary votes. He has squandered the support even of the slavishly sycophantic Tory press, and the process of “levelling up” seems to be going into reverse.

The good news is that our floundering featherweight of a prime minister has finally been forced to jettison Cummings and his Vote Leave henchmen in favour of apparent grown-ups such as Simon Case and Dan Rosenfield – and that there are now only four years left until the next election.

[See also: The US’s nightmare is finally over but the UK’s is just beginning]