Otto English’s 2021 Round-UpPart Three
Downing Street Christmas parties, Omicron, North Shropshire – the end of 2021 was a hellish one for Boris Johnson’s Government
On 8 September, Boris Johnson stood before the House of Commons and outlined the long-awaited Health and Social Care Bill. Critics claimed the measures, which were to be funded through a 1.25% rise on National Insurance, penalised the very poorest in society. For all the guff and noise about ‘levelling up’ and being the party of the ordinary working man and woman in the street, here was a clear sign that the Conservatives remained a party for the interests of the rich, by the rich.
There was joy for Brexiters in the days that followed, with a reshuffle which saw one of their dimmest lights make it into Cabinet. Nadine Dorries, romantic fiction writer, was appointed Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary and immediately declared war on online trolls and bullies. It all went swimmingly – until her own tweets were cruelly used against her.
Highlights included a post in which she had called journalist James O’Brien a “posh-boy f**kwit” and another, in 2017, when she had retweeted far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (known as ‘Tommy Robinson’). Pleading ignorance of the English Defence League co-founder and former leader, she claimed: “As I’m not somebody who follows the far-right, I don’t believe I would have known he was.”
The reshuffle also saw the removal of Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary, after his ‘D-minus’ performance over exams and free school meals; as well as the promotion of Dominic Raab to Deputy Prime Minister and a demotion to Justice Secretary – presumably on account of his ability to fend-off the lure of a paddle-board. Liz ‘pork markets’ Truss took his place as Foreign Secretary.
Late September saw fresh hell challenge the stoicism of the British people, with fuel shortages and panic-buying – caused in part by a Brexit-related HGV driver shortage, the pandemic, and media reports which saw people lose their famed ‘Blitz Shit’ and make a dash for the pumps.
With January now feeling as far distant as the Early Palaeolithic Era, the month of October dawned.
At the end of its first week, the Government withdrew the £20 pandemic Universal credit uplift, with Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey writing to the six million claimants and telling them that they would see “an adjustment in their payments”.
“Losing that extra bit of income will be devastating,” young Mum Harriet Duffy told the BBC, “a lot of people have become reliant on it.”
Five days later, a report by MPs – ‘Coronavirus: Lessons Learned to Date’ – concluded that the Government’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic meant that a ‘herd immunity‘ approach was then an inevitable outcome.
The parliamentary committees which produced the report – chaired by two Conservative MPs – also lauded the roll-out of vaccinations as “one of the most effective initiatives in UK history”, but suggested that early failures had come as a result of a culture of “group-think” among the Cabinet and scientific advisors.
Despite all of the warnings, too little was done too late in the crucial early weeks of the crisis and the “veil of ignorance through which the UK viewed the initial weeks of the pandemic was partly self-inflicted”, it found. “Serious errors” by ministers and scientists had exacerbated the crisis and “cost thousands of lives” in what had amounted to “one of the most important public health failures the UK has ever experienced”, the MPs said.
On the afternoon of Friday 15 October, news broke of an attack in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, during the constituency surgery of local Conservative MP Sir David Amess. Sir David, who had represented Southend West since 1997, later died of stab wounds. The incident sent shock-waves across the country and raised more general concerns about politicians’ safety. As tributes were paid across the political divide, it was announced that Southend would be granted city status in honour of the murdered MP, who had long campaigned for it to be so.
With the COP26 UN climate change conference in Glasgow looming, activists from the Insulate Britain group seized what remained of the headlines. Despite an injunction issued against them, demonstrators created rush-hour chaos throughout the month by blocking roads, motorways and even the Dartford Crossing as they sought to highlight their cause.
COP26, which began on 31 October and hosted by the UK Government, failed to secure enough concrete commitments despite its grand ambitions. To their shame, China and Russia’s leaders failed to turn up at all.
On 3 November, Boris Johnson flew 400 miles back from COP26 to London in a private jet to attend a dinner, at the male-only Garrick Club, of Telegraph journalists, including his former boss Lord Charles Moore – a known climate change denialist and a vocal supporter of Conservative MP Owen Paterson.
A month earlier, Paterson had been found to have breached lobbying rules by the Parliamentary Commission for Standards.
Since 2015, the MP had been earning £8,333 a month from a company called Randox Laboratories for just 16 hours work and an additional £2,000 from Lynn’s Country Foods for four hours work every other month – all on top of his parliamentary salary. Neither arrangement broke any guidelines, but the Commissioner did find that Paterson had approached officials at the Food and Standards Agency and had a meeting with ministers at the Department for International Development, while failing to disclose his interest – and these amounted to a “serious breach” of the rules.
According to reports, Lord Moore was eager to lobby the Prime Minister on the beleaguered Paterson’s behalf over dinner at the Garrick Club – and Johnson is said to have resolved that night to stand by his man.
It had been recommended that Paterson be suspended from Parliament for 30 sitting days. But, subsequent to the Garrick Club dinner, the Conservative Party moved to protect its own.
As a motion to carry the recommended suspension was put before Parliament, Andrea Leadsom sought to press pause on his suspension by adding an amendment that would set up a new committee, made up of a majority of Conservative MPs, who would look at how investigations around standards were being conducted. It stank and everyone knew it stank but, with that comfortable Commons majority, the amendment passed anyway.
Unfortunately for the Government, the stench leaked out beyond the parameters of Westminster and, following considerable condemnation from opposition parties and the media and a sense of general unease in the country, the Government performed an epic reverse-ferret and Paterson resigned as an MP.
History may come to see the Paterson affair as a pivotal moment, both in Johnson’s reign and the fortunes of the Conservative Party. Either way, however far the ramifications, that moment saw the dials shift in the closing weeks of 2021.
Some even began to suggest that the elaborate attempts to prevent Paterson’s suspension might have been in Johnson’s own interests – since the same committee was due to investigate him over his Downing Street flat refurbishments.
On the same day that Owen Paterson stepped down, suspended Labour MP Claudia Webbe was given a 10-week suspended prison sentence for harassment of a long-term friend of her partner. In contrast to the Conservatives’ attempts to ‘protect’ their own, the Labour Party had already suspended her and Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Shabana Mahmood called, again, for her to resign her seat.
On 14 November, Remembrance Sunday commemorations took place at the Cenotaph, which were not attended by the monarch for just the sixth time in her 69-year reign.
That same day, a taxi – carrying a rejected asylum seeker, Emad al-Swealmeen – exploded outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital killing the suspect and nobody else. The attack saw the UK terror threat rise.
With inflation hitting its highest rate for 10 years, and millions struggling to pay rising bills, the Government continued its dismal record of failing to deliver on the promise of ‘levelling up’ and invoked further ire in the north of England by announcing that the HS2 rail sections to Leeds were to be scrapped.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps called the new integrated rail plan “ambitious and unparalleled”. His opposite number, Jim McMahon, said that the Government had “completely sold out the north”. Conservative MP Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Committee, seemed to agree adding that there was a danger that the Government risked “selling perpetual sunlight and leaving it to others to explain the moonlight”. Few have summed up the Johnson era better.
If the Prime Minister’s woes were not bad enough, in late November, COVID-19 made a terrible come-back as news of a “variant of concern” emerged.
Omicron (‘B.1.1.529’) – first identified in South Africa – was precisely the sort of vaccine-evading strain that the World Health Organisation’s Dr David Nabarro had warned about in June. As cases multiplied, the rattling chains of the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future derailed the Boris Johnson Show.
His promise back in February that the country would “never go back to lockdown” and that it was on a “one-way road to freedom” had hit a great big brick wall. The new variant spread rapidly, rising from two confirmed cases on 27 November to more than a hundred just a few days later. And then thousands and then tens of thousands.
As the month ended, as many as a million people in the north-west and Scotland suffered the added misery of power cuts and flooding in the wake of Storm Arwen sweeping in from the Atlantic. The storms may not have reached the south-east, but Boris Johnson was now fending off multiple fronts of his own, like a batsman being machine-gunned with cricket balls.
A chaotic performance on 23 November in front of the Confederation of British Industry – in which the Prime Minister lost his place in his speech and started rambling on about Peppa Pig World, imitated a car and generally looked ridiculous – led to a concerned ITV reporter asking: “Is everything OK Prime Minister?”
Even if it was, it very shortly was not.
On 30 November, the Mirror newspaper revealed that a Downing Street Christmas party had been held last December, when Coronavirus restrictions had been in force. While millions of Britons had been having a miserable time, cancelling events and plans, Downing Street staff had been hosting quiz nights and playing charades.
In a major scoop, on 8 December, ITV broadcast footage of the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, practising answering questions from colleagues – pretending to be the media – in which she joked about how she might spin stories about the Downing Street Christmas party. Stratton quit her job as a Government spokesperson for COP26 after the film of her laughing and joking about “cheese and wine” and a gathering which was not “socially-distanced” emerged.
That same evening, amid a growing tidal wave of Omicron infections, Boris Johnson announced ‘Plan B’ – a drive to get the country vaccinated with booster jabs and making the wearing of masks compulsory in shops and on public transport – in a move that was widely derided as a classic ‘dead cat’.
The following day brought more bad news for the Prime Minister, as the Conservative Party was fined £17,800 by the independent political donations watchdog, the Electoral Commission, for “failing to accurately report a donation” of £52,000 given by Lord Brownlow to cover the costs of the refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street flat.
With Christmas looming, it seemed that all of the turkeys were coming home to roost at once – and this time they were bringing their friends.
On 14 December, it transpired that the Conservative London Mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, had not only attended a Christmas Party with his staff the previous year but had posed with them for a photograph that proved it. London Assembly Member Bailey resigned from his role chairing its police and crime committee.
As shortages of lateral flow tests mounted across the country, the Commons held a series of votes on restrictions aimed at curbing the tide of Omicron. Despite a rebellion by backbench Conservative MPs, Johnson managed to get the measures through, with the help of an increasingly bullish Labour frontbench.
Then came the North Shropshire by-election. Voters in Owen Paterson’s recently-vacated seat went to the polls and sent the Conservatives packing. A constituency which had been Tory for nearly 200 years, was snatched by Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan in of the largest swings in electoral history. Lib Dem activists later said that it was ‘Peppa Pig’ that had cut through on the doorsteps – a sign perhaps that, in the second year of a pandemic, Boris Johnson’s reign as the Joker King simply is not funny anymore.
This was a year like no other. One in which millions of Britons suffered job losses, uncertainty, illness and the appalling effects of an incompetent Government leading us through the worst crisis in living memory. With the dawning of 2022, here’s hoping for a new year with a lot more to be joyous about…
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