A year of Boris: how Johnson managed his first 12 months in the job

From a post-Brexit surge in popularity to the trials of a deadly pandemic

Boris Johnson
From a post-Brexit surge in popularity to the trials of a deadly pandemic
(Image credit: 2015 Getty Images)

Boris Johnson will celebrate the end of his first year as prime minister in Orkney, a part of the UK in which one storm is gathering as another appears to have passed.

It has been more than a month since the island’s last positive test for Covid-19, its ninth in total, and none of its 22,000 inhabitants are believed to have died from the disease.

But if Johnson was hoping for a respite from the pressures of office he will be disappointed. Yes Orkney, a group campaigning for an independent Scotland, has promised him “a proper islands welcome” - which may include a reminder that the pro-independence side is now ahead.

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And a Black Lives Matter protest by a group called Orkney Oot Wae Racism will rake up more unfinished business from his first 12 months at the helm.

Phase 1: the Brexit deadlock

Johnson’s victory in the Conservative leadership election was announced on 23 July 2019. He had beaten Jeremy Hunt by 92,153 votes to 46,656 and took office as prime minister the next day.

“In his victory speech, Mr Johnson promised he would ‘deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn’,” says the BBC. He managed two of the three, but not without a divisive struggle to break the Brexit deadlock he had inherited from Theresa May.

“Throughout the summer and early autumn, Johnson’s new administration was engaged in parliamentary guerrilla warfare with the ‘Gaukeward squad’ of Tory rebels, who wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit,” says The Guardian.

The decisive moment came when the PM expelled David Gauke and eight other Conservative MPs, including former chancellor Philip Hammond, who had helped Labour thwart the government’s plan to leave the EU on 31 October.

Johnson, who had previously said he would rather “die in a ditch” than delay Britain’s departure, did at least manage to secure a deal with the EU, “albeit by accepting an Irish Sea border that he had previously rejected out of hand”, says the New Statesman.

That teed up an election campaign in which the PM contrasted his straightforward enthusiasm for Brexit against Jeremy Corbyn’s more convoluted message.

Phase 2: Brexit gets done

On 12 December last year, “Johnson’s Conservative Party crushed Labour in a devastating landslide victory”, says the Daily Express.

By “tearing through Labour’s post-industrial heartlands”, says The Guardian, he forged a majority of 80 - the largest Conservative victory since the 1980s.

Afterwards, he spoke of “levelling up”, reassuring northern voters who had abandoned Labour that they would benefit from more government support. “I will not let you down,” he told them.

When the UK formally left the EU on 31 January, he delivered on his key election pledge, but “his deal left many questions about the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU to be thrashed out in negotiations”, says The Guardian.

With less than six months to go before the end of the transition period, those negotiations have yet to produce a breakthrough.

Phase 3: the pandemic

As Covid-19 began to spread through the UK population, Johnson was at the height of his popularity. In polls, “the Tories found themselves averaging as much as 52% in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis”, The Independent reports. “Then it all changed.”

Voters who had been willing to give the PM the benefit of the doubt, especially when the virus confined him to intensive care for three days, were less sympathetic to shortages of PPE, doubts about testing and allegations of hypocrisy levelled at Dominic Cummings.

“It is true that the coronavirus pandemic was not his fault, and that it presented a challenge of an unprecedented scale and severity, but his government’s response was lamentable,” says the New Statesman.

The Express disagrees. “With his bulldog spirit and irrepressible good humour,” it says, “Mr Johnson has epitomised the country’s collective effort against the spread of the epidemic.”

That may no longer be enough. “From mid-May the polls have tracked downwards,” says The Independent. “Not anywhere close to the lows seen last summer, but enough for the Tories’ lead over Labour to drop to as little as four points.”

Polls have been shifting in Scotland, too, as voters north of the border respond more favourably to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic.

“The UK’s top pollster believes the Yes side would be the favourites to win a second independence referendum - for the first time ever,” The Scotsman reported this weekend.

Sir John Curtice said he could see “consistent evidence across a sequence of polls all pointing in the same direction and at that point one has to sit up and take notice”. Johnson’s visit to Orkney today - and an announcement of a £50m investment in the Western Isles, suggests that No. 10 has noticed.

“Prime ministers can survive many things, but not the break-up of the country they lead,” says The Spectator. “The greatest single danger to this government is the state of the Union.”

More immediately, however, the PM will have to navigate a post-coronavirus recession that will complicate his levelling-up agenda, especially if combined with a no-deal Brexit.

And while his government’s economic response to the pandemic has been widely praised, Johnson has not reaped the political rewards. “Thus a mere year into Johnson’s premiership,” says the New Statesman, “there are already mutterings about Rishi Sunak, the able young chancellor, replacing him before the next election”.

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Holden Frith is The Week’s digital director. He also makes regular appearances on “The Week Unwrapped”, speaking about subjects as diverse as vaccine development and bionic bomb-sniffing locusts. He joined The Week in 2013, spending five years editing the magazine’s website. Before that, he was deputy digital editor at The Sunday Times. He has also been TheTimes.co.uk’s technology editor and the launch editor of Wired magazine’s UK website. Holden has worked in journalism for nearly two decades, having started his professional career while completing an English literature degree at Cambridge University. He followed that with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. A keen photographer, he also writes travel features whenever he gets the chance.