Can Boris make a comeback?

A year after winning his dazzling majority, the Prime Minister is a shadow of his former self

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December 9, 2020

It’s hard to see behind the public persona he’s built to conceal it, but Britain’s current Prime Minister has a solitary, reflective spirit. My bet is that the character hidden behind the façade of ‘Boris’ has more than once, in the long dark teatime of the soul, wondered: how would things have gone for me if it weren’t for this damned virus?

Who hasn’t stopped to think about the alternative universe where the novel coronavirus first reported in Wuhan just fizzled out in late 2019? What would 2020 and the first year of the Johnson premiership have looked like then?

The flight of fancy that follows from that question is not to minimise or trivialise the real experience of Covid-19, which includes more than 60,000 dead in the UK alone. But by imagining what might have been, we can sometimes see more clearly the things that are in front of us, hidden in plain sight.


The club at 67 Pall Mall was heaving with happy Tories, drunk on good champagne and opinion polls. When Boris Johnson finished his brief speech to the faithful, there were chants of “ten more years”, not all meant ironically.

The PM himself withdrew to a small private bar reserved for his nearest and dearest, where alone he munched a plate of manchego and chorizo with a large glass of Clos de la Roche. Carrie’s joke about his waistline soon exceeding his approval ratings still rankled a bit, but what’s the point of being world king if you don’t enjoy it?

And enjoy it he had. As he’d recently told Cameron Minor on WhatsApp, this prime ministering lark was actually pretty easy when it came to it — “Can’t understand how you made such heavy weather of it all, Dave.”

Of course, the critics — many of them his former Fleet Street colleagues — were forever whanging on about him not understanding the difference between campaigning and governing, but he took no notice. Likewise the whining from Lobby journalists given ever less information by a Downing Street operation they described as aggressive and dysfunctional. A career in newspapers had taught him exactly how much the good opinion of hacks matters.

Instead of the papers and the Lobby, Johnson had spent his first year communicating his government’s record directly to the people who put him in office. Every week he was in another Red Wall seat, talking about “getting Brexit done” and “levelling up”.

The pundits, sometimes kindly but generally not, compared this approach to that of Donald Trump: a permanent campaigning operation built around the appeal of “Boris” and often largely detached from the actual record of his government. And as that first year since the 2019 election ended, that record was patchy. The UK economy had crawled through 2020, growth barely breaking 1% amid uncertainty about Brexit and what was looking increasingly like a full-blown trade-war between the US and China — Trump himself having decided that America First was his best bet at re-election in November.

Probably the most significant thing the Johnson government did in that first year was unveil its March Budget, which was heavy on spending promises and a programme of income tax cuts aimed at lower earners. Economists fretted about the deficit and the new young Chancellor “let it be known” that he too had wanted a more hawkish approach to the public finances. But with no real public profile, Rishi Sunak had little chance of resisting the economic cakeism demanded by his far more prominent and powerful boss.

Johnson’s decision to hold a 5pm press conference on Budget day to talk about the package in time for the evening bulletins only confirmed No 10’s dominance over No 11. “It is my great honour to serve Her Majesty as First Lord of the Treasury,” Johnson grinned when asked if he was stealing the Budget.

Domestically, there wasn’t a great deal else of substance to report from that first year — the deliberately skinny 2019 manifesto was far from an agenda for government, and for all its dominance and aggression, the No 10 team didn’t have much in the way of detailed reform ready to roll out. Instead, they revelled in charges that they’d started a “culture war” by organising repeated attacks on the BBC and “woke” universities. Both of those went down well with the Red Wall group of Tory MPs, whom some commentators described as the most Right-wing cohort of Conservative Parliamentarians in a generation.

In May, a pamphlet co-written by Red Wallers called for “welfare conditionality”, which would deny benefits to people without a clear record of work; the reintroduction of prison ships; and the construction of detention camps for asylum claimants. The pamphlet was, eventually, disowned by the Prime Minister for being at odds with “my One Nation principles”. Despite that disavowal, when it later emerged that the pamphlet had been strongly encouraged by advisers in No 10, no one was surprised. Especially since its publication caused journalists to repeatedly ask Sir Keir Starmer if he agreed with the proposals: his answers spawned dozens of Facebook memes, made by the ongoing Tory campaign operation, depicting the new Labour leader as a north London human rights lawyer who backed welfare cheats, yobs and illegal immigrants. The most effective of these was a crude photoshop of Starmer wearing Jeremy Corbyn’s beard.

Meanwhile, “Levelling up” was a popular slogan and tended to go down well on the PM’s weekly tours, even though the critics kept pointing out that the Government didn’t seem to have a clear plan for actually doing it. By the late summer, there were even whispers starting to emanate from the Treasury that the Chancellor himself had doubts about the “economic blueprint” his team had been given by their line manager in the Spring. “Setting up BARPA and re-arranging the furniture in No 10 don’t constitute an economic strategy,” one Treasury source was reported as saying in September.

This had not gone unnoticed and Dominic Cummings was stepping up his efforts to have the PM move Rishi in the New Year, possibly under the cover of the New Deal with Europe.

Mind you, Dom had problems of his own to worry about. To the surprise of many observers, the Prime Minister’s Senior Adviser was widely seen as the decisive force behind Johnson’s decision to strike a deal with the EU in October.

That deal went down well with business and allowed Johnson to give some speeches about a new era beginning and looking forward to an early trade deal with what he privately expected to be America under a re-elected Trump Administration. But it also saw the first stirrings of unease on the Conservative benches. The day after Johnson announced his deal with the EU,  Steve Baker and Iain Duncan Smith were spotted by a passing hack arriving at No 5 Hertford Street in Mayfair. The MPs later insisted they were there for a “private lunch” but a persistent — and accurate — rumour suggested that they dined on rare roast beef with several of the financial backers of the Vote Leave campaign. At a table where the diners’ collective net worth was measured in ten figures, one red-trousered guest cheerily christened his meat “Dom” before driving the knife home.

But then… not much. For all that Baker and a few other Tories enjoyed some TV hits lamenting the deal as a “betrayal of Brexit”, not many colleagues followed them over the top. Yes, that dysfunctional Downing Street operation annoyed MPs, but they were mostly quite circumspect about it. When you have an 80-seat majority, who really cares that your staff aren’t very nice to backbenchers? And as usual, promises of a reshuffle just over the horizon worked their magic.

Still, not everything was tranquil. As he swilled the wine in his glass and listened to that talk of a decade in office, Johnson found himself thinking again of a conversation he’d had with Carrie a month earlier. On 4 November, the day after Trump’s narrow re-election victory, she’d asked him flatly: “Do you want to go down in history as that man’s sidekick? You might get your statues, but don’t be surprised if Wilf and his friends want to tear them down when they grow up.”

For all that he enjoyed the applause he got on his weekly visits to the new Tory heartlands, that shook him, because he knew he wouldn’t get the same warmth closer to home: liberal Londoners who’d embraced him as one of their own just a few years earlier had closed their doors to him, and it hurt.

Stung into action, Johnson startled aides by announcing he would fly the next day to Glasgow to take over the chair of the COP-26 summit that had started earlier that week. He would spend the next week in Scotland ignoring Nicola Sturgeon and SNP protests to give daily updates on Britain’s leadership in what he called the new battle of our times.

Diesel-petrol cars and vans would be banished. Gas boilers would be banned. Green jobs would proliferate. And the real news: Britain would support the development of new geo-engineering solutions: “Huge machines to suck the deadly carbon out of the skies. Oceans seeded with iron to trigger an explosion of carbon-munching algae. Reflective particles in orbit to reflect back the heat of the sun.”

Closing the COP, Johnson reached for his favourite wartime metaphors:

 “To win this battle, we must work together to build an impregnable shield around our climate and that can only be achieved by developing and mass producing airborne sulphate to ward off deadly radiation.

“The more we pull together and share our expertise, the faster our scientists will succeed. The race to build the shield  is not a competition between countries but the most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes. We are in this together and together we will prevail.”

The speech led news bulletins around the world.  The intro to the New York Times report called it “a vaultingly ambitious claim to global leadership whose questionable practicality was eclipsed by its brio and stark moral clarity”. The BBC led on the speech for three days running and even the Guardian leader column praised the PM for taking “global heating” seriously.

Not everyone was quite so impressed. In late November, Baker announced that he had been elected chair of the new Climate Research Group of Conservative MPs, said to have more than 40 members. “We don’t deny the science of climate change or the need to act,” he said. “We just want to know why British workers and taxpayers and motorists should have to make the biggest sacrifices when countries like China and India are responsible for 37 times more carbon than us?”

Meanwhile, a leaked paper from the Treasury’s Net Zero Review talked darkly about the loss of low-wage jobs in carbon-intensive industries, “distributional trade-offs” and even new taxes on carbon. Questioned about the paper in the Commons, Sunak failed to deny any of its details, or to confirm that he believed the PM’s “moonshot” plans to re-engineer the planet were practical or affordable. “Those are questions for the First Lord of the Treasury,” he said with a thin smile.

Dom wasn’t helping much either, always going on about how the focus groups showed that even though people say they care about the planet, they care a hell a lot more about jobs, wages, schools and hospitals. And Carrie had started saying she didn’t like the way Dom and Lee stopped talking when she entered the room, and the looks they gave her sometimes. It all made for a less than jolly atmos in Downing Street sometimes. Sooner or later, Johnson thought, something will have to be done about all that.

But settling back into his set, he considered more immediate matters: his glass was at least half full of good red wine and Carrie had gone home early so he could have another helping of cheese. After a year in power, Boris Johnson thought, life could be an awful lot worse.