A political fairytale gone wrong
Published in Newsroom (Wellington), 20 October 2020
Once upon a time, Boris Johnson scored an emphatic election victory. It delivered him an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, and it was won on a promise: To sort out Brexit.
That distant era was less than a year ago. And yet, it feels like ancient history. Not only has Covid-19 overshadowed everything else in this weird year, the dithering British Prime Minister bears little resemblance to the political animal he once was.
Johnson went through a strange metamorphosis. Starting as a would-be reincarnation of Winston Churchill he ended up as a new version of Theresa May. While Johnson lost his wit, his determination and almost, during his Covid-19 hospitalisation, his life, the UK tumbled through an annus horribilis.
The problems for Britain are manifold. Key among them are the Covid-19 crisis, Brexit and whether the Union will survive. Each uncertainty on its own could wreak political and economic havoc. Taken together, they form a toxic cocktail.
Little wonder, then, that Moody’s just downgraded Britain’s creditworthiness from Aa2 to Aa3. The ratings agency is justifiably nervous about Britain’s long-term future.
When Johnson rammed his withdrawal agreement through Parliament following his election victory, the plan only postponed a final deal with the EU. True, Johnson delivered Brexit formally – Britain is no longer a member of the bloc. Beyond that, difficult questions about Northern Ireland, fisheries management and the overall trade relationship with the EU remain unclear.
And then Covid-19 happened. While Brexit dominated the 2019 headlines in Britain and beyond, hardly anyone talks about it today. A 12-month timeline was already ambitious to sort out Brexit, but negotiations have effectively ground to a halt. A Zoom call is no substitute for complicated face-to-face diplomacy.
That Johnson performed poorly in the pandemic obviously did not help. It is not as if his administration lacked a strategy to deal with the virus. The Government had way too many, and they overlapped, contradicted each other and changed daily.
The confusion was so great that Johnson at times could not even properly explain his Government’s own decisions. The icing on the cake was when some of his aides and ministers then openly disregarded the guidelines.
The harshness of the British lockdown combined with uncertain communications yielded a predictable economic outcome: the economy suffered one of the world’s worst Covid-19 collapses.
It took until the second half of 2020 for it to dawn upon Johnson that despite his policy mess, the administration still needed to sort out Brexit. Johnson tried so in his typical ways. He openly violated his own withdrawal agreement over Northern Ireland and once again threatened to leave the EU without a deal. Not quite a way to make friends – or win negotiations.
The EU, meanwhile, used equally sophisticated negotiation tactics (just to be clear, that was sarcasm). It often appears that the competition between Britain and the continent is about who can cry the loudest and bluff the most shamelessly. In that sense, France’s President Macron is not too dissimilar to Johnson.
Meanwhile, the acrimony between London and Brussels, and the haplessness of the UK’s Covid-19 policy, also deepened the rift between the British and Scottish Governments.
If 2019 already feels like an eternity ago, 2014 is virtually prehistoric. In a referendum that year, Scotland narrowly voted against independence. Unionists across the UK hoped this would answer the question once and for all. They were wrong.
The Scots were never keen on Brexit in the first place and Edinburgh has presented itself as the better Covid-19 crisis manager. Both crises now offer the Scottish National Party room to renew its calls for another go at independence.
The longer both crises drag on, and the more inept Johnson’s leadership appears, the more it will drag the Union apart.
As these events play out, the economic disruption could be substantial. The British pound has seen wild swings since the Brexit referendum. In the year after the vote, for example, the sterling plunged by a quarter against the euro. Such currency swings between developed, neighbouring economies are rare and show the enormous uncertainty of the situation.
The coming months will be crucial for Johnson, the EU, the British economy – and for the future unity of the United Kingdom.
At this stage, and despite rising dissatisfaction among his political and media supporters, Johnson is not facing an immediate leadership challenger. However, that could change quickly and he could meet the same fate as his predecessor Theresa May. Her inability to square the Brexit circle, combined with waning party support, saw her exit 10 Downing Street after only three years in office.
When Boris Johnson celebrated his historic election victory last December, he would not have imagined such a shaky premiership so soon.
Perhaps Johnson can be compared to his great idol Winston Churchill. Churchill was also booted from office shortly after his greatest triumph. A similar fate – but without a war won – might await Boris Johnson.