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Hell of a Year: Britain Under Johnson’s Rule

Otto English compiles the epic accomplishments of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, during his first year as Prime Minister

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to Tollgate Medical Centre in east London in July 2020. Photo: Evening Standard/Jeremy Selwyn/PA Wire/PA Images

Hell of a YearBritain Under Johnson’s Rule

Otto English compiles the epic accomplishments of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, during his first year as Prime Minister

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Back in May 2010, ConservativeHome – the website owned by Belizean cleaning tycoon Lord Ashcroft – published a list of Boris Johnson’s 100 greatest achievements as Mayor of London. This was halfway through his first term in office and clearly the goal was to laud the triumphs of the darling of the Conservative Party.

It is unclear who actually compiled the list as the author wisely chose to remain anonymous. But it undoubtedly remains one of the weirdest hagiographies of Johnson available anywhere.

Things start well, with the writer hailing more police officers, an end to bendy buses and free travel for “veterans”. Then the examples seem to run a little dry.

By number nine the article celebrates “fewer press officers”.

By 13, it rejoices in Johnson flying “economy class” to Beijing, which sounds great until you discover that Johnson’s aides had actually tried desperately to get BA to upgrade him.

At number 16, we are told that Johnson “supports the phasing out of road humps”. From there begins a downward spiral into epic desperation, best viewed from behind the sofa, with fingers over your eyes.

This is Brexit Britain trying to return to the days of gunship diplomacy, when it was a ‘proper’ power that was taken seriously. The world has changed irrevocably; the mentality of some at the top has not.

By 26, the article informs us that Johnson “brought back Christmas”. By 38, he has saved “classical music” and, by 78, a butt-clenching cameo in Eastenders is being puffed as a significant Mayoral triumph.

As the finish line looms into view, the excruciating disharmony of barrel-scraping rises to an overwrought crescendo before ending with “crime mapping” – a poor man’s Minority Report-style policy that was popular with politicians in the wake of the 2002 film.

The truth is that Johnson’s two Mayoral terms did very little to improve the capital or the lives of Londoners – because that was never the point. Boris Johnson was only ever interested in the gig because it served to promote the interests of Boris Johnson.

So, when I was asked to mark his first year as Prime Minister, I naturally thought back to that iconic ConservativeHome list and wondered if he had done any better as the leader of the entire country.

One hundred achievements proved a bit of a stretch, so here instead are Johnson’s 10 most amazing achievements as Prime Minister.

1. He Got Brexit Done

Johnson was elected Prime Minister in December 2019 on the very clear promise that he would “Get Brexit Done”. It was simple. He had an “oven-ready deal” that was “good to go”. All we had to do was take it out of that giant fridge, prick it with a fork, slam it in the oven and bingo – three minutes later the “bespoke deal” – which was not inedible crap in any way – would be ready.

To be fair, Johnson did achieve what Theresa May had failed to. After four years he managed to get Brexit over the line and, on 31 January 2020, the UK left the EU.

Unfortunately, that was the easy bit.

The UK now faces a treacherous and uncertain future, cut loose from its powerful place at the heart of the greatest free trade area in the world, as a global pandemic rages all around us. Matters are not improved by this Government’s seeming intention to drive us off a cliff through a ‘no deal’ scenario.

His one significant achievement in office is pyrrhic and will yet quite likely destroy him – as it did his two predecessors.

2. His Cabinet is Diverse

When he first became Prime Minister in July 2019, Johnson was praised for appointing one of the most diverse Cabinets in history.

Sajid Javid, the son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver, was made Chancellor and sat alongside Home Secretary Priti Patel, International Development Secretary Alok Sharma, Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly and Kwasi Kwarteng at the Cabinet table. That meant that 18% of key Government ministers were now from black and ethnic minority backgrounds – a curt rejoinder to those who accused the Brexit Conservatives of racist, Little Britain tendencies. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.

Following the departure of Javid, subsequent to a reshuffle in February 2020, the picture now looks a bit different.

There are now just three black and ethnic minority ministers and, while much has been made of the (drum roll) six women in Cabinet, that is fewer than former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had around his top table.

Meanwhile, any claim to being a Government of working people is utter nonsense. Johnson’s Cabinet is overwhelmingly rich, white, male, privileged and privately educated. The only case for his Cabinet representing ‘minorities’ is that, as 70% of his 22 ministers attended private schools – in stark contrast to just 7% of the population – some might argue that public school children could technically be deemed a minority. But good luck with that if you try it.

3. He Finally Told the Truth

When the Coronavirus first hit these shores, the Government seemed relaxed about it. Despite having witnessed the destructiveness of the disease in Italy and Spain, no lockdown measures were put in place and the attitude was very much ‘keep calm and carry on’. That changed as the scale of the emergency became apparent.

Soon Johnson’s cack-handed management of the crisis created the conditions for more cases and more deaths than any one of our European neighbours. As of late July 2020, the UK has 45,318 reported deaths from COVID-19. That means that, for perhaps the first time in his 20-plus years as a major political figure, Johnson said something true. He rightly predicted that many of us would “lose loved ones” – and we have.

4. He Demonstrated that Anyone Could Catch COVID-19

As the Coronavirus swept Britain, it nearly claimed Johnson himself.

On the very day that the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned people not to shake hands, the Prime Minister boasted publicly of having done just that on a visit to a hospital where there were cases of the illness.

Some days later, he came down with the virus and subsequently nearly died. That event was significant: no better public signal could have been sent out about the grave threat posed by the disease.

If the leader of the country could nearly be taken by it – then so could you. Undoubtedly, this led to people taking the menace of COVID-19 more seriously. By contracting the Coronavirus, Boris Johnson managed inadvertently, for once in his life, to set an example.

5. He Created a New Ministry

When he came to office last July, Johnson decided to create a new ministerial post.

The ‘Minister of the Union’ had been proposed by Johnson while running to become Conservative Party Leader. The idea – as far as I can work out – was to have a minister who would say nice things about the Union and pop off to Scotland and Wales every now and again to wave at the locals. This charm offensive would render everything okay.

The actual remit of the post remains opaque, not least because the responsibilities of the job listed on the Government’s website are currently blank and have been since July 2019.

We do know who the minister is though. It’s a guy called Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson and he apparently has a budget of £10 million to do whatever it is that the post requires – once someone has decided what that is, assuming they ever do.

6. He Proposed a Trade Deal with Liechtenstein 

Who needs the silly old European Union when we can trade with the rest of the world? Thanks to Johnson getting Brexit done, the UK has left the EU with its tariff-free trade and £16 trillion economy and can now once again engage with countries it was already trading with before – but only once we’ve forged some bespoke deals.

One of those deals looks set to happen before the end of the year. Yes, the UK-Liechtenstein trade deal is nearing completion we are told and please don’t sniff.

The tiny principality may have a population slightly smaller than that of Bishop’s Stortford and a GDP equivalent to the turnover of Greggs bakeries, but this is our future and we should embrace the opportunity, just as we did when we had the same deal with the country as a member of the European Union.

Of course, that’s not the only trade deal on the table. The one Johnson was trying to make with the US may now look set to fail, depriving us of the 0.16% it was going to add to our economy over a period of 15 years. But there’s every chance of a deal with New Zealand at some point – at least once it has finalised the one it is prioritising with Brussels. 

7. He Stood up to China

Having spent millions of pounds contracting Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to implement 5G high speed broadband in the UK, Johnson evinced a U-turn in July after heavy pressure from the US.

The UK will now be removing all existing Huawei kit from networks by 2027.

The scale of threat posed by the company remains unclear, but this is not the only area in which the UK is standing up to China.

In recent months Johnson’s Government has robustly defended the people of Hong Kong’s freedoms against a sweeping new security law being introduced there at Beijing’s behest. It has told three million Hong Kong citizens that they could potentially become UK citizens if China keeps clamping down on democracy.

This is to be genuinely applauded – but there are two slight reservations.

The Brexiters told us repeatedly that the UK was leaving the EU to make deals with places like China. That seems to have been conveniently forgotten. There is also a sense that this is Brexit Britain trying to return to the days of gunship diplomacy, when it was a ‘proper’ power that was taken seriously. The world has changed irrevocably; the mentality of some at the top has not.

8. He has Provided Work for Aircraft Decorators

Boris Johnson was hankering after his own Austin Powers-style jet as long ago as 2018.

Back in those halcyon days, when he was still flying about the world as Foreign Secretary – insulting people and making gaffes that would lead to the imprisonment of UK citizens – Johnson moaned to journalists about the boring colour of the ministerial jet and said he’d like one of his own.

That dream has now come true and, despite the greatest economic crisis in 300 years wrought by a global pandemic, the governmental Airbus has been painted at a cost to taxpayers of £900,000.

It’s all great “value for money” according to a Downing Street spokesperson

9. He has Done his Bit for Population Growth

As Mayor of London, one of Johnson’s greatest accomplishments was to increase the population of the city.

He was unusually bashful about the achievement, and it was only after three High Court Judges ruled that the public had a right to know that Johnson had fathered a child with an art consultant after a ‘brief adulterous affair’, that we found out.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has of course had another child with his latest partner Carrie Symonds, meaning that he now has six or seven – or maybe more – children. Who knows.

But babies are good things and, if one of them is keeping him awake at night, all the better. 

10. He is Creating a Register of Spies

Back in late 2017, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) conducted an investigation into Russian meddling in UK democracy.

Its report was completed in March 2019, after which the security services went through it with a big marker pen, redacting all the juicy bits.

By October 2019, it was ready to be published and with new Prime Minister Boris Johnson in power everyone rubbed their hands and waited… and waited and… waited.

Johnson refused to release the report prior to the 2019 General Election last December and for seven months subsequent to that. He kept pledging that he would, but his promises seemed to carry as much weight as his marriage vows.

It was only after considerable pressure had been put on the Conservative leader that it finally came out this week.

The key finding was that Russia had indeed interfered in UK democracy and that our country was one of the Kremlin’s “top targets” – but we didn’t know the extent of it because our own Government refused to investigate it.

In response to the report, and clearly trying to dampen the flames, it was announced that the UK was planning to draw up a ‘Register of Spies’ in which foreign agents working undercover would be obliged to fill in a form and fess up to everything. I’m sure that news will leave you feeling duly reassured.

So there you have it, Britain. It would be quite wrong and unfair to say that Boris Johnson has achieved nothing in his first 365 days. He’s achieved a lot. Although how much of it is in your interests or mine is a matter of some considerable doubt. 

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