The rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic has left chaos and disruption in its wake. Over the past months, national governments have faced challenges of unprecedented proportions. With over 30 million cases worldwide, a million deaths, and the numbers still rising, no nation has escaped the pandemic’s clutches.
However, there have been mixed verdicts on how various nations have performed in dealing with the crisis. Within a British context, the first calendar year of Boris Johnson’s premiership has been nothing like he would have envisaged when he came to office in the summer of 2019.
The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson
By the end of 2019, Johnson had cemented his position with a resounding general election victory, seemingly guaranteeing himself and his party five further years in power following the Conservatives’ best electoral performance since the 1980s.
Johnson planned bold measures to deliver a “One Nation” style of government, to “get Brexit done,” and in doing so secure his reputation in the country’s political history — all of this while fulfilling his long-standing ambition to be prime minister.
Yet, as we enter the tail end of 2020 and with the COVID-19 crisis continuing, Johnson’s government must face the stark scenario that it has presided over the highest number of virus fatalities in the whole of Europe.
The government has faced a barrage of criticism for the way it has handled the lockdown, its poorly performing testing and track-and-trace process, its mixed messages about public safety measures, as well as a shortage of sufficient protective medical equipment.
Some members of the administration have been accused of inexperience, while Johnson himself was widely criticized for failing to take action when his key advisor Dominic Cummings appeared to breach lockdown rules.
Subsequently, Johnson’s reputation and image have weakened drastically in the space of a year. As UK’s former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan perceptively commented during the 1950s, unforeseen events can lead to all original political plans being swiftly abandoned. This largely appears to be the case in this situation.
Handling a No-Deal Brexit and COVID-19
In Johnson’s defense, this is a crisis on a scale that few political leaders of the past would ever have predicted or had to deal with. He has faced a difficult balancing act of addressing both public health and economic anxieties. Johnson’s supporters would claim that his administration has reacted with some innovative measures such as the furlough “job retention” scheme and government subsidies for the embattled hospitality sector known as “eat out to help out.”
Yet the economic costs of such schemes continue to rise, impacting on national debt, with mass unemployment and associated further welfare costs predicted if the spread of the virus is not brought under control.
Other developments and undercurrents within British politics have made Johnson’s task arguably more difficult. The Brexit saga continues to rumble on. There is still no agreed trade deal with the EU in sight and the country will be facing a disruptive final and potentially bumpy departure at the end of this year if one cannot be agreed upon. This is in stark contrast to earlier government pledges that a deal could be easily secured.
The expected economic disruption this will cause has alarmed many businesses that view the dual impact of a no-deal Brexit and a destabilizing pandemic as a particularly toxic combination.
Comparisons With Other Politicians
Johnson’s performance during the pandemic has also been compared unfavorably to other prominent politicians. This includes his Chancellor Rishi Sunak, as well as the more slick and politically disciplined Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose leadership during the crisis has been broadly praised, and which has consequently appeared to boost the prospects of Scottish independence.
Indeed, with the Scottish dimension in mind, the pandemic has exposed various aspects of the UK’s political system that were perhaps previously overlooked. This particularly includes the variable powers and policies of the devolved territories, with Scotland and Wales often adopting different approaches to Westminster in responding to the outbreak.
Johnson has also faced a new Leader of the Opposition in Sir Keir Starmer, who has improved Labour’s position in the opinion polls and has specifically and consistently attacked the prime minister on the grounds of his “incompetence” in handling the crisis.
The capacity for competent and effective statecraft has often been viewed as a core strength of Conservative governments of the past. Such allegations have the potential to be very damaging in the longer term.
In contrast to some of these other politicians — said to have been more dynamic and better performing — many have accused Johnson’s character of being unsuited for dealing with this intense crisis, amid claims of a somewhat lazy, casual, and at times bumbling approach to political leadership. In his defense, he too succumbed to the virus earlier this year. Yet, such dissent has arisen from one-time allies and supporters of the prime minister as well as established opponents.
The final outcome of this crisis is yet to be determined, though both global and national politics appear to have irrevocably changed. From a British perspective, this major test appears to have been failed, fueled by criticisms that key political leaders along with the system itself (diminished after a decade of austerity), have simply not been up to the job.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.