It’s a reasonable assumption, if not a certainty, that Boris Johnson will not look back on 2020 with much fondness. And 2021 hasn’t got off to a great start for him, with the new virus strain ripping through the population and a national lockdown likely to be in place until Easter. Who would have believed that this arch libertarian would, just weeks after delivering the Conservative Party its largest parliamentary majority since 1987, be forced to lock us all up and close down the economy? Of course, he was “only following the science” and the example set by leaders across Europe and the Far East – and the arrival of COVID-19 was hardly of Boris Johnson’s making. But there have been legitimate question marks over how the government has responded to the pandemic, with real problems over the delivery of PPE, a track and trace system that clearly did not work, and many other problems besides.
Throughout much of this crisis it has felt like No 10 was always one step behind, playing catch-up. Relationships between No 10 and the parliamentary party became very strained, not just over the handling of the pandemic but more generally, with growing concerns over too much centralisation of power in No 10, with junior ministers – and even some Cabinet ministers – complaining they were shut out of the decision-making processes. Every ministerial utterance had to be cleared by No 10. And, of course, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was something of a hate figure for most Conservative MPs. The warm glow of a stunning general election victory in December 2019 evaporated within weeks.
Indeed, by the summer the mutterings that Boris Johnson may not be Prime Minister by summer 2021 became more frequent and louder, with mounting speculation that he might even step down voluntarily, citing health reasons following his own close encounter with COVID-19. Opposition within the Conservative parliamentary party to the lockdown measures became ever louder and more hostile. It was said the Boris wasn’t enjoying the job, even complaining that he didn’t have enough money. It was a struggle to find many Conservative MPs who thought he would last. And all the while the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saw his star rising. Few doubted that, should Boris go, Rishi Sunak would be his successor.
And yet, as the curtain comes down on 2020, might Boris Johnson be finding his mo-jo? He has delivered Brexit with a trade deal that at one point looked impossible. It’s not a perfect deal by any means, but it has the backing of the Eurosceptics in his party and of European Research Group – no mean feat. Boris Johnson has removed the curse of Europe from his party which has been badly divided on the European issue for decades.
Whether the Brexit issue has been finally put to bed is far from certain. However, the treaty allows the UK to renegotiate its terms and even to end the agreement altogether – and there are plenty of areas where future Prime Ministers may well want to renegotiate. The whole vexed question of fish comes up for renegotiation anyway in 5 years’ time. There is plenty of scope for trouble ahead. But for now at least Boris Johnson can bask in the warm glow of doing something that no Conservative leader since Ted Heath has done – temporarily or otherwise he has lanced the European boil and brought unity to his party.
And on the pandemic, the arrival of two vaccines gives us all hope that, come the spring, we may finally be able to get back to normal, or near normal. Spring feels like an awfully long way off right now, and with the new strain of the virus ripping through the population and with the NHS near breaking point, there is still much to keep Boris Johnson awake at night. There could yet be many a hitch with the rollout of the vaccine, and the logistics of this are mind boggling.
But with Brexit done and a trade deal signed, and with some prospect that the virus will be defeated come Easter, has Boris Johnson seen his fortunes as party leader start to change? His hold on power seemed to be growing weaker by the day during much of 2020 with an increasingly restless parliamentary party dismayed at the government’s handling of the pandemic and its centralising instincts. But politics is a fickle business if nothing else, and with two important successes under his belt, Boris Johnson may yet find that talk of his demise as party leader is premature.
He’s not out of the woods yet, mind you, and there is a huge task ahead to rebuild the economy. There will surely be some unpopular measures taken as the Chancellor starts to pay off the debt mountain. We still have weeks of lockdown to endure and much could go wrong with the vaccination programme. And recent opinion polls make for grim reading for the Conservative Party, with one suggesting it could lose its majority if an election was held tomorrow – with even Boris Johnson losing his seat. But the election is a long way off, and there is a scenario now where Boris Johnson could manage to secure his position more firmly as party leader than at any time since he himself succumbed to the virus all those months ago.