LONDON — When the history of Boris Johnson’s premiership is written, keep an eye out for the second week of June 2020.
His government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic came under sustained criticism almost from the get-go. But this week key decisions were attacked more than ever before, former allies broke ranks to criticize Johnson’s leadership, and the full extent of the economic damage that the pandemic has wrought was revealed by jaw-dropping official statistics showing a 20 percent fall in GDP in April.
For good measure, the U.K. entered a new phase of an already fractious culture war, with tensions emerging over the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement in a country still coming to terms with its own colonial history — encapsulated by the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, a 17th century slave trader, in the city of Bristol.
The U.K. prime minister’s week will taste all the more bitter for the fact he began the year on a high: fresh from a decisive election victory, his chief policy goal — Brexit — was legally enacted on January 31, and he was eyeing five uninterrupted years at the top, with the cushion of a big parliamentary majority.
Brexit did feature this week, when on Friday the U.K. formally confirmed it would not extend the post-Brexit transition period. It should have been a big moment. But it pales in significance compared to the tasks that lie ahead for the country and its prime minister.
The ‘big, big’ economic hit
Johnson described Friday morning’s figures from the Office for National Statistics — which show the U.K. economy contracted by a record 20.4 percent in April, the first full month of the lockdown that was introduced on March 23 — as an unsurprising sign of the “big, big economic knock-on effects” of the pandemic.
Not surprising, maybe, but the figures still had the power to shock. They came two days after the OECD said the U.K. was likely to be hardest-hit of the major economies, with a slump of 11.5 percent in 2020 (albeit only slightly worse off than neighbors France and Italy).
“The U.K. is heavily dependent on services, a very dynamic creative economy, we depend so much on human contact,” Johnson said Friday, but pledged: “Confidence will return and you will see a bounce back in the U.K.”
However, thoughts are already turning to the summer and autumn, when the U.K.’s successful — but eye-wateringly expensive — job retention scheme begins to wind up. The furlough scheme, which as of June 7 had seen 8.9 million jobs supported by the government at a cost of £19.6 billion, has so far been responsible for preventing a historic spike in unemployment to go with the GDP plunge. As it winds up, some experts forecast unemployment could approach or exceed 10 percent — levels not seen in the U.K. since the 1930s.
What’s more, the pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities in health and circumstances in the country, with figures also released Friday showing people in England’s poorest areas are more than twice as likely to have died from COVID-19 than in the richest areas. Economic turmoil won’t help.
Johnson has a big speech lined up in “the coming weeks” setting out his recovery strategy; a project that will now eclipse Brexit as the defining project of his premiership.
Before the economic figures, it was already a bad week for Johnson.
On Tuesday a plan to get primary schools fully open again before the summer had to be delayed till September, but worse was to come when on Wednesday, one of the government’s most influential advisers, Imperial College’s epidemic modeling expert Neil Ferguson, stated boldly that had the U.K. gone into lockdown just one week earlier — a decision that ultimately rested with Johnson — its coronavirus death toll (currently estimated at above 50,000) could have been halved.
Johnson said in response that it was “premature” to judge the rights and wrongs of decisions made, but many in Whitehall now consider a full public inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis a near-inevitability at some point in the not-too distant future.
Throughout, Johnson has insisted his government has been “led by the science” and taken the “right decisions at the right time,” but senior figures concede things could have been done differently. Asked on Wednesday to name his biggest regrets, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said: “There’s a long list of things we need to look at very seriously,” but singled out the U.K.’s slowness to increase its testing capacity at the start of its outbreak.
Inquisitors are also looking closely at decisions taken with regard to care homes, where nearly a third of deaths in England and Wales have occurred, according to the most up-to-date ONS figures.
A National Audit Office report on Friday confirmed that 25,000 patients had been discharged from hospitals into care homes between March 17 and April 15, with no policy in place guaranteeing those people would be tested for COVID-19. Those with symptoms were prioritized for testing, but, said Jeremy Hunt, chair of the health committee and Johnson’s former leadership rival, it was “extraordinary we did not appear to consider risks of asymptomatic infection.”
‘Breaking with Boris’
The catalog of alleged shortcomings has led to unease among Johnson’s own troops, according to several reports.
Already shaken by the public backlash against Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings after alleged breaches of lockdown rules, feeling among the Conservative faithful was incapsulated on Wednesday in an article in the New Statesman by the co-founder of the ConservativeHome website and a former adviser to Johnson, Tim Montgomerie.
It warned that discontent stems not just from policy errors, but from the perception of Johnson’s Downing Street as a closed shop, running things from the center under a “reign of terror” led by Cummings.
MPs “no longer believe in the prime minister in the way they did,” Montgomerie wrote. “They still want their faith to be restored, but does Johnson realise the scale of what will be required to ensure that? I hope so. I fear not.”
It’s not as bad as all that on the back benches, according to one senior MP and former Cabinet minister. “Boris is hugely popular and there’s a lot of understanding for the challenges he faces and his personal health issues recently,” the MP said, referring to Johnson’s own near-death experience with COVID-19.
But MPs — who have always regarded Johnson, foremost, as an election-winner — will be watching the polls closely.
The prime minister’s personal approval ratings have slipped from +22 in early May, shortly after his recovery from COVID-19, to -7 in a new YouGov poll which capped off Johnson’s rotten week.
That would be bad enough, but the prime minister’s worries are compounded by the fact the other guy is going in the opposite direction. Labour’s Keir Starmer scored +27 in the same poll, and in another poll, by Ipsos MORI published Friday, achieved +31, the best of any opposition leader since Tony Blair in the 1990s.
The consolation for Johnson: He still held a marginal lead in terms of the person the public think would make the most capable prime minister, and the Conservatives’ poll lead over Labour remains intact (if a little narrower than it was in the days of former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn).
Johnson still enjoys the loyalty of his party and of many of those who put their faith in him to deliver Brexit — it’s far too soon to write him off. But this week showed how the narrative around his premiership has fundamentally changed.
Pulling a divided and traumatized country through the coronavirus recovery would challenge any prime minister — let alone one who many consider a divisive figure. This is now the task that will define whether Johnson can still be the history-making (for the right reasons) prime minister he always wanted to be — or whether his best days in office are already behind him.