Updated: Jan 12
This article has been written by contributor James Baldwin
Two years have passed since the resounding election victory of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party, in which the party promised to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ‘Unleash Britain’s Potential’, just two of the catchiest phrases from the divisive campaign. In the word count afforded, this report will assess ‘Johnsonism’ and the Prime Minister’s success so far, both against his own standards and against wider expectations.
Despite Brexit dominating the public debate, Mr. Johnson, a mere three months after being awarded his 80-seat majority, was faced by the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, prompting his tenure to be faced overwhelmingly with this. Covid has been a prime example of this Government’s record, and has revealed the issues of government failure within the administration. When the British Government enacted a national lockdown in March 2019 in an attempt to quell a rise in infections, their response was notably slow, especially when compared to other nations.
A level of understanding in response to the lack of decisiveness prior to the first lockdown is appropriate. But it is an indictment on the administration that the mistake was made thrice over. Prior to the November lockdown, there was advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the opposition Labour Party to enter a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown. The government refused, before conceding two weeks later; resulting in gross levels of infections and deaths. The government repeated the error just a month and a half later, maintaining a complex, and ever changing, tiered system and dithering over whether to put the United Kingdom into a third lockdown. It eventually did so, two weeks after SAGE had informed Mr. Johnson that tougher restrictions would be necessary. Successes in fighting the pandemic have become more apparent, however. The UK’s fast vaccine roll-out at the start of 2021 was the envy of the international community, and may have helped the country resist a fourth wave of infections at current - removing the need for the imposition of any, nevermind tighter, restrictions. The continued success remains to be seen and is already under pressure from the announcement of 28th November in which the government has introduced some minor new restrictions. In any sense, the initial handling of the pandemic demonstrates clear failings.
Covid-19 held Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union out of the headlines for months, an impressive feat after years of Brexit-centricity. Brexit has, however, still lurked in the background, and has without question been central to the government’s agenda. With ‘Get Brexit Done’ the administration's initial mantra, it must be noted that to a slight degree this was completed. The UK withdrew almost immediately after Mr. Johnson led his party to a majority in the 2019 general election.
Yet, Brexit remains an ongoing issue for the Johnson administration. The deal forged with the EU has not yet proven to work to the UK’s advantage. Take Northern Ireland. Just months after signing the Northern Ireland Protocol - established in order for the UK to enact a ‘hard’ Brexit whilst complying with the Good Friday Agreement - the administration has now requested re-negotiation. Currently it has suggested that the UK may enact Article 16 of the protocol, suspending key parts of agreement. The peace process in Northern Ireland, as has been witnessed recently, is highly fragile and it will not take much to upset this. Ironically, economic benefits of Brexit have been seen in Northern Ireland, where certain businesses are taking advantage of the country’s unique status as a member of the UK and EU’s Customs Unions. Nonetheless, navigating the UK’s early post-Brexit days will continue to be a difficult task, not just for Mr. Johnson, but future administrations as well. The administration must compromise and work with the EU to find a secure settlement for both sides. Failing to do this so early on after negotiations does not reflect well on the Johnson administration.
Finally, we move to the recent budget announcement. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, presented a big-state conservatism in his Budgets which have redefined the political lines. High spending will remain a characteristic of the government, whilst tax receipts will rise to their highest since the 1950s. Mr. Johnson’s legacy appears to aim at not just a clean break from the EU, but in a clean break from the last decade of conservatism, where low taxes and low spending characterised what has become known as the austerity government. Spending is projected to increase in real terms across all departments. The NHS will see the biggest boost, having received a 40% increase from its levels in 2010 - more than any other department. However, the government also needs to address the crunch issues faced by the NHS, especially staff shortages. Education has also received a boost in spending. But, it will only hit 2010 spending levels by 2024-25 and has failed to specifically address how it will meet the fallout in education from the pandemic.
Contradictions in tackling the climate emergency persist, despite strong and welcome rhetoric from the government. Amid a host of progressive policies surrounding green investment, Mr. Sunak announced a cut to Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights. Meanwhile, cutbacks were announced to the sustainable high-speed train service High Speed 2. The government, therefore, appears to be subsidising consumers to emit more Carbon Dioxide by flying across Britain as opposed to travelling by rail. This also derails attempts to level-up the North, which is worth an article in itself. Nonetheless, in tackling climate change, Mr. Johnson has taken a leading role worldwide, with the UK’s pledges being some of the world’s most progressive.
The Johnson administration has had a rather eventful two years at the helm of British politics. Covid-19 will continue to challenge them between now and the next general election, as will Brexit. Recent and relative success in tackling the virus has bode well for the Government’s popularity. But the Prime Minister has not been associated with much success so far: Brexit is far from finalised; Covid-19 has assaulted public finance; and a cost of living crisis is on the horizon. A tough two years lie ahead, and any notion of unleashing Britain’s potential remains to be seen.