2020 ended well for Boris Johnson: do not underestimate him

“All’s well that ends well.” This seems to be the motto of Boris Johnson, our Conservative Prime Minister in the UK. He’s had a terrible 2020, with his government constantly being wrong-footed by the developments on the coronavirus epidemic. But he ended it with two major successes and that pretty much neutralised it all at a stroke. This is how he does his politics, and it is why he should never be written off.

His first success was on the virus, with the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The development and roll-out of vaccines is the one area of virus policy where Britain’s record stands up to international comparison (actually alongside development of treatments, though the benefits of this are less visible). And the Oxford vaccine was developed largely in Britain, and is manufactured here, as well as many other places worldwide. It seems to have the best balance between effectiveness, cost and deployability of the leading vaccines – though it lost the battle of the press releases earlier in the year, with misleading comparisons of efficacy being made with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Britain may now beat other major countries in the speed with which it tackles the crisis through vaccination, just when infection rates are starting to explode in much of the world. Britain should be among the first to see the benefits of mass vaccination.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson’s most dangerous critics, the lockdown sceptics, have been silenced. With hospitals now under extreme stress it has become much harder to make the case that lockdowns are an unnecessary evil. And a lot of the stories being peddled by sceptics, such as that London was starting to benefit from herd immunity, have been shown to be idle speculation. Also the presence of a new, more infectious strain of the virus has served as an alibi for a lot of dodgy decisions in the run-up to Christmas. My suspicion is that much of the recent explosion in infection rates, which is leading to hospital overload, is in fact down to pre-Christmas behaviour, following the government’s announcement that a five-day easing of restrictions would be allowed. But everybody is talking about the new strain.

So, although the news from the pandemic is very depressing here in the UK, Mr Johnson has managed to limit the political fallout for him personally. The fumbling goes on, but if the vaccine goes as well as we re al hoping, then Mr Johnson can put a positive glass on the whole thing.

Mr Johnson’s second triumph is the Brexit deal. This is a huge political success, whatever one thinks of its substance. Without it there would have been a lot of Brexit-related noise and hassle in early 2021; with it the end of the transition period was a bit of an anticlimax. Furthermore, the process of pushing the conclusion of the deal to the very last moment was solid politics. Doubtless it helped to wring more concessions from the other side on the sort issues of nominal sovereignty that get his MPs so worked up. Better still, the lateness, and its proximity to Christmas, reduced public scrutiny; this critical piece of legislation was rushed through parliament in a single day. Another hope of government supporters, that the short-term economic effects of Brexit would be masked by the effects of the pandemic looks as if it will come to pass too.

It is not hard to see how the government hopes things will go from here. after a “bumpy” couple of months, the vaccine will start to push back the effects of the pandemic, precipitating an economic boom, which masks any short-term costs of Brexit. On Brexit the government doesn’t need to deliver on its preposterous promises of economic benefits (which isn’t to that there won’t be benefits), it just needs to say “There, that didn’t hurt so much did it?”. Remainers painted a picture of short-term economic catastrophe. There has been such a catastrophe, of course, but that is clearly because of covid-19, not Brexit, and the country will bounce back.

Of course this does not mean that things will keep on going well for Mr Johnson. His serial incompetence and weak ministerial team will lead him into yet more mess and muddle. It is not at all clear how he plans to get away from the carnage inflicted n government finances – though the betting is that he will try to ignore it, which is what quite a few sensible people are saying he should do. He will have a huge political headache in dealing with the bid for Scottish independence, which will be harder to ignore, though there may be political capital to be made in England.

But the point is this: we should not underestimate Boris Johnson’s command of the art of low politics. He may well last until another election (likely to be before 2024), and win it.

UPDATE

I started drafting this piece last week, and, in spite of some edits, its perspective is a bit last week. Soon after I pressed the button to publish, Boris Johnson went on the television to announce six weeks or more of heavy lockdown in England, including the reversal of his position on schools that he had been defending only that morning. To many this just shows how bad he is at managing this crisis. This could all have been done long a go – the evidence was clear then – but leaving it until later ensures that the damage inflicted will be greater. So that looks like a bad start to 2021.

But my main point stands. If the government can implement the rapid rollout of the vaccine, and if that succeeds in beating back the virus, the momentum will switch and the trials and tribulations will be forgotten. Neither proposition is a certainty, but both look probable. What is currently missing is expanded financial support for those adversely affected by the measures – but looks as if it is on its way.

6 thoughts on “2020 ended well for Boris Johnson: do not underestimate him”

  1. I would agree with this post to the extent that Johnson does seem to have obtained a remarkable dominance over the Tory party, which has a good majority in Parliament. But I don’t think that he can deliver on his promises of levelling up, due to the problems with the public finances you mention , Matthew, and also due to the aversion of a powerful section of Toru support to tax increases, an aversion I don’t think even Johnson can overcome. So , as Churchill lost to Atlee in 1945 to give the heroes of the war a better life, my guess would be that Johnson will lose out to Keir Starmer to provide the heroes of the epidemic with a better life. Starmer should be able to deliver – though regrettably for Lib Dems on an overcentralised and somewhat nationalistic basis as was the case with Atlee.

    1. I agree that Johnson is unlikely to deliver much of economic substance in the North and Midlands, but he will play on Labour weaknesses, portraying them as out of touch southerners.

  2. No mention of Scotland. The question is whether BoJo, ever short-termist, will put up only token resistance to another indyref, on the grounds that it will hurt Labour more than him.

    1. I was conscious of missing out Scotland, but I wanted to avoid a tangent. It is now his biggest political threat. Funnily enough this week’s Bagehot colomn in The economist credits Johnson with playing a long game in Europe and suggests he might do so in Scotland. Dashing for a referendum is a bit Cameronesque, rather than characteristic of Johnson.

  3. I agree with most of this but what “Carnage on Govt finances”? The economy will likely be buoyant, when we do finally beat the virus, (maybe by Easter?) due to the extra money that’s stayed out in the economy rather than going back to Govt in taxes.

    Possibly it will be so buoyant that we’ll have an inflation problem. So we’ll have to increase taxes to slow it down. Maybe. Let’s wait and see rather than put the brakes on before we need to.

    1. I accept that the carnage is more optical than substantial. But the Treasury and Tory backbenchers might panic. Some of the latter could take a leaf out of the Republican book, as they are bound to rediscover fiscal conservatism as a stick to beat Biden with. Sensible management of the fiscal position will require the Tories to eat a lot of words. That won’t worry Johnson, but it might worry his party.

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