Boris Johnson may have had an easy run with Jeremy Corbyn as his opponent. But, with Keir Starmer leading the Labour Party, the prime minister is now facing a reality check.
The story of Boris Johnson in 2019 – and early 2020 – was one of defying political gravity. He began last year as a backbench politician, having left the cabinet over a Brexit deal he had initially accepted only to quit just a few days later, largely because David Davis had done the same and he didn’t want to be left out.
He brought that same decisiveness and coherence first to his Telegraph columns, which nevertheless continued to deliver him £5,000 a time, and then back to the battleground of politics when he entered the fray to replace Theresa May as Tory leader.
Conservatives took one look at a man whose previous campaign, in 2016, had imploded before it launched – not least because of the betrayal of the man who’d planned to run it – his subsequent track record as foreign secretary and Brexit commentator, and decided that all the same he was the man for them.
Johnson promptly used his time in Number 10 last year to lose a record-breaking number of votes, lose a supreme court case, and lose the most MPs to expulsions and defections of any government in living memory, the figurehead PM of an administration not in control of its party, let alone its country.
And then he rose. Johnson secured a staggering majority of 80 parliamentary seats last December, handed Labour its worst electoral result since 1935, and then went on to secure a Brexit deal with which he declared himself ecstatic. Despite a record that could only be described as mediocre by the most generous of observers, Johnson had achieved every political goal he had aimed for, in short order.
The problem with defying gravity is that in the real world you can only do it for so long – and when the pull of the earth reasserts itself, the landing is rarely gentle. Johnson in many ways had a blessed run-in to early 2020.
When it came to Brexit, the actual consequences of his decisions were postponed by the implementation period. When it came to governing, his administration was new and his majority large – all he would need to do is ‘end austerity’ and all would be well. And when it came to politics, he was up against Jeremy Corbyn – and as it transpired, a scarecrow might have been a fiercer opponent.
All the things that usually weigh down a prime minister left Johnson untethered and unrestrained. But one by one they have returned.
On one level the return of coronavirus is an unprecedented global crisis and it is certainly a national tragedy – amid the celebrations of pubs and hairdressers reopening it’s easy to forget that more than 67,000 people (and counting) are dead.
But on a political level, it’s almost a case of ‘events, dear boy, events’. Thatcher’s shock – the Falklands – worked in her favour. John Major never expected Black Wednesday or BSE. Tony Blair did not plan to deal with the foot and mouth crisis, let alone the aftermath of 9/11. Gordon Brown moved into Number 10 only to run headlong into the global financial crisis. David Cameron, lacking a crisis from the world, created his own with the Brexit referendum.
Some crisis was always going to strike Johnson’s administration. It is a disaster for us all it was such a large-scale one, given every sign so far suggests the current government couldn’t have handled a minor crisis, let alone this.
Johnson is clearly hating every aspect of dealing with coronavirus. He will hate its aftermath, which will overshadow any political project he dreamed of building with Dominic Cummings. His ministers have learned the hard way the country doesn’t run itself, and they can’t leave the civil service on autopilot.
Dithering and indecision, mismanagement and confusion have cost lives and have cost public trust and support. These memories will last – and the government seems to show no understanding of what to do to respond. Stunts like repainting a plane for Brexit don’t work when the public wants you to get a grip on bread and butter issues. Faced with the realities of governing, the Vote Leave bag of tricks comes up empty.
The second tether to reassert itself is Brexit, though its weight is only just beginning to grow. For four years, talk on Brexit has been cheap – economic reality can be explained away when it’s in the future. Chaos at the border can be ruled out as scaremongering until it happens. Job losses are just talk until they’re real. For Johnson, Gove, Raab and legions of lesser Brexiteers, outright denial has been a winning strategy.
It’s still – just about – working, for now. It won’t work in six months’ time. The UK’s deadline for extending the implementation period will pass while this newspaper is on newsstands. The UK will not have secured an extension, and currently has little prospect of a deal.
A fragile nation will have to brace itself for a fresh economic blow, landing at the dead of winter, and potentially – though we must all hope otherwise – right in the middle of the winter flu outbreak and a second wave of coronavirus.
If shop shelves run short, if borders are gridlocked, if jobs are lost that did not need to be lost, the public will neither forgive nor forget. The only tactic the government has had for dealing with Brexit naysayers has been dismissal. They will need a new one fast.
That leaves political opposition as the new factor bringing Johnson back to earth. Supporters of Corbyn liked to hope he was the only Labour leader the establishment ever feared, the man who kept Tories awake at night, a hope for change.
In reality he let the Conservative Party unravel to levels they never had before because he worried them so little, and presented so little a threat. They had an opposition leader the public hated, who could be relied on to walk into every political bear trap and to miss every open goal.
Keir Starmer is not such a man. To the disappointment of some Corbyn supporters, he deftly evaded political traps on statue toppling, without disowning or disavowing the BLM protesters or ignoring their concerns. He has proven able to jump on the political opportunities created by Marcus Rashford and others, helping them to secure government U-turns. He is requiring Number 10 to at least attempt to take Prime Minister’s Questions seriously. Crucially, his polling numbers suggest he also looks roughly like the public think a PM should.
Starmer has an impossibly long road to walk before he enters Number 10 as prime minister. We have no idea what his vision for his party is, and we have seen nothing in the way of policy from Labour since he took over as leader. Whatever he offers, he would need a swing on a scale not seen since 1997 to govern with even the slimmest of majorities. What he can do, at least, is remove Johnson’s ability to rule untethered. For a year, Johnson floated freely above his own mistakes, hubris and decisions – veering out of control to the top of British politics.
From there, the only way is down. He may fall very hard indeed.