Home » Politics » Triumph and tumult: The story of Boris Johnson’s first year as prime minister
Triumph and tumult: The story of Boris Johnson’s first year as prime minister
July 24, 2020
A year ago today, Boris Johnson became prime minister.
In the 12 months that have followed, he has taken Britain out of the European Union and masterminded an historic election victory.
But he has also had to contend with a global pandemic that has required an unprecedented government response and at one stage left him fighting for his life in intensive care.
This is the story of that first year in office.
Johnson seizes his second chance
It is his race to lose from the start – and in the end Boris Johnsoneasily defeats Jeremy Hunt and succeeds Theresa May.
Having blown his chance in 2016, Mr Johnson takes advantage of a propitious set of circumstances to finally get the job he has craved for so long.
Sorting out Brexit broke Mrs May, with her premiership becoming bogged down in a quagmire of deadlock and division.
Mr Johnson’s unique blend of rhetoric and optimism – which make him a darling of the Conservative grassroots – seems like the perfect tonic for a party that wants to feel good about itself again.
Addressing the nation, the new PM vows to end “three years of indecision” and deliver Brexit by 31 October, “no ifs or buts” – and without a deal if necessary.
Mr Johnson also sketches out a broader picture of what he wants his premiership to look like.
There is a pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers and “fix the crisis in social care”, as well as extra funding for schools and a hospital upgrade programme.
Mr Johnson declares that after three years of “unfounded self-doubt” it is “time to change the record”.
And with that he walks through the black door of Number 10 and gets to work.
The Brexit stalemate continues
Having cast himself as the knight in shining armour who would rescue Britain from Brexit paralysis, the early months of Boris Johnson’s premiership do not feel that much different to Theresa May’s.
The knife-edge votes, government defeats and mutiny in the Tory ranks continue.
Everyone in Westminster knows there will be showdowns between the government and opposition MPs over the PM’s willingness to pursue a no-deal Brexit.
And the battle begins when Mr Johnson decides to prorogue, or suspend, parliament for more than a month.
The PM insists he wants to do this to set out his government’s agenda in a Queen’s Speech.
But opponents, who vow to fight it in the courts, suspect the real motivation is to frustrate their efforts to stop a no-deal Brexit.
Whatever the motivation, it means there is now a race against time.
This produces yet more drama, as Mr Johnson finds himself bedevilled by the same problems that proved ruinous for his predecessor.
The PM loses his working majority in early September when Phillip Lee defects to the Liberal Democrats, while 21 Tories lose the party whip for backing opposition attempts to block a no-deal Brexit.
Then comes the resignation from government of the PM’s brother Jo.
Amidst this chaos, Mr Johnson comes to the conclusion that he has to push for an early election.
The high-risk masterplan is to reset the parliamentary arithmetic with a Tory majority and crack on with Brexit.
Easier said than done.
Especially given that opposition parties are not prepared to give the PM what he wants quite yet, voting against motions for an early election until a no-deal Brexit is off the table.
In the end, MPs opposed to no-deal manage to pass legislation designed to avoid such a scenario before parliament is suspended, which is derided by Mr Johnson as a “surrender bill”.
Having suffered numerous parliamentary defeats, the PM seems to have engineered a reprieve.
But another roadblock is looming.
‘Void and of no effect’
A cross-party group of MPs furious with Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament quickly launch a legal challenge.
When the Supreme Court hands down its verdict in late September, it is another setback for the PM.
The suspension is ruled unlawful and “void and of no effect”.
In other words, it is as if it never happened.
Opposition MPs accuse Mr Johnson of lying to the Queen and say he should resign, a demand swiftly rebuffed by Downing Street.
In a further demonstration of the febrile atmosphere in parliament, the PM comes under attack for saying the best way to honour the memory of murdered Labour MP Jo Cox is to “get Brexit done”.
Having coveted the keys to Number 10 for so long, it seems like the beleaguered PM cannot catch a break.
Johnson tries to break the Brexit deadlock
At the start of October, Mr Johnson’s opponents feel like they have him on the ropes.
But in his big speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the PM comes out swinging.
In an address filled with the usual Johnsonian vim and vigour, he unveils what he describes as “constructive and reasonable” proposals to try and agree a renegotiated Brexit deal.
Mr Johnson calls on the EU to respond to the UK’s “compromise”, with the olive branch setting the scene for a crucial summit.
Johnson confounds the sceptics
As Mr Johnson prepares for his first – and he hopes last – European Council summit, he knows it could define his premiership.
If he pulls off what many regard as unthinkable and gets a revised deal, he can return from Brussels triumphant and back on the front foot.
Looming large is the legislation, the so-called Benn Act, passed by MPs to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
This gives the PM until 19 October to get any deal approved by MPs, otherwise he will be compelled to ask for a further Brexit delay.
Given the noises out of the EU in the early months of Mr Johnson’s premiership, the fact that the PM is able to get a revised deal is regarded as a notable achievement.
Mr Johnson hails it as a “great deal for our country”.
The removal of the Irish border backstop guarantees Mr Johnson will have the backing of Conservative MPs when his new deal is put to a vote.
But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which had an agreement to support the Tories in key votes, is not on board.
And backbench MPs from all parties fear that even though there is now a new deal, there is not enough time to pass the accompanying legislation in time for 31 October.
They worry that, in voting for the PM’s revised agreement, and in turn satisfying the terms of the Benn Act, they could set in train a series of events that would see a no-deal Brexit happen either by accident or by design.
These MPs have an ace up their sleeve – and they play it in the first sitting of the Commons on a Saturday since the Falklands War.
For a moment, it looks like Britain’s EU exit is entering its endgame.
But “Super Saturday” ends up being another false dawn.
Conservative MP Sir Oliver Letwin tables an amendment which he says is designed to prevent an “accidental” no-deal exit and act as an “insurance mechanism”.
If passed, it will mean that the “meaningful vote” needed to approve the PM’s Brexit deal will only happen once the legislation required to leave the EU – the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – has been passed.
Much to the fury of Mr Johnson, MPs approve it. This means the Benn Act comes into force.
The PM asks the EU for a three-month delay to Brexit, having previously said he would rather be “dead in a ditch”.
The request is sent to European Council President Donald Tusk in an unsigned letter, which Mr Johnson describes as “parliament’s letter”.
The following week, there are further setbacks for the PM.
Speaker John Bercow – long a target of Eurosceptic fury because of his perceived Remain bias – denies the government a second vote on the Brexit deal.
This forces the PM to change tack, instead trying to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
But while MPs back the legislation in principle, they reject his three-day timetable for passing it.
Amid yet more deadlock and delay, an election seems a certainty.
‘Get Brexit done’
After the EU agrees to delay Brexit until the end of January, events move quickly.
With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit pushed back, MPs finally approve an election on 12 December.
It is inevitable that Brexit will dominate.
Boris Johnson makes it the centrepiece of the Conservative campaign – “Get Brexit done” is the party’s slogan.
It is a simple and effective rallying cry, but one that can be criticised as disingenuous given that leaving the bloc is only the end of the first phase of Brexit.
The PM portrays himself as the man on the side of people who just want Brexit sorted out, someone who has had his hands tied by out of touch MPs.
For Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, the election is a “once-in-a-generation chance to transform our country” by ending austerity, increasing spending and re-nationalising a number of key industries.
The Labour leader presents himself as the man for the many, the one to take on the “corrupt system” he says is engineered in favour of the interests of the few.
Unlike the Tories, Brexit is not Labour’s focus. The party has a policy of course – to renegotiate the PM’s deal and put it to a second referendum within six months of coming to power.
The battle lines are drawn and campaigning begins.
Polls suggest the Tories are on course for victory.
Mr Johnson appears aware that it is seemingly his election to lose, playing it safe with a manifesto that promises just £3bn in day-to-day spending increases.
The vow to “get Brexit done” is what it is all about, with the PM returning to this message again and again.
There are two head-to-head debates between Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn, but they do not produce any campaign-altering moments.
Still, a number of moments from the campaign trail itself stick in the memory.
Mr Corbyn produces documents which he claims show the NHS will be “up for sale” in a post-Brexit US trade deal under the Tories.
The documents are found on website Reddit, with it later emerging that Russian groups sought to interfere in the election by promoting them.
Campaigning is paused in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack that leaves two people dead.
The father of Jack Merritt, one of the victims, accuses the PM of trying to “score election points” in his response.
But as the PM gathers with his inner circle in Downing Street to await the results, he will be quietly confident of victory.
Electoral earthquake sees Labour’s ‘red wall’ crumble
As the clock strikes 10pm on 12 December, the results of the broadcasters’ exit poll are revealed.
The headline is clear: Boris Johnson’s gamble has paid off and he is on course for a convincing victory.
As the night progresses, it becomes apparent that the tectonic plates of British politics have shifted.
The first sign that something historic is in the offing comes when Blyth Valley, Labour since its creation in the 1950s, elects a Tory MP for the first time.
It proves to be the first brick to fall from the so-called “red wall”, traditional Labour heartlands that have backed the party for decades.
As dawn breaks, Britain awakes to a new political reality.
The Tories have their largest parliamentary majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher, a commanding total of 80.
Labour, in contrast, loses more than 50 seats as it registers its worst performance at the polls since the 1930s.
But in a sign of potential trouble on the horizon, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP wins 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, a result the first minister hails as “clear endorsement” of a second independence vote.
As Jeremy Corbyn announces his intention to resign, Mr Johnson begins planning for the next five years.
At a victory rally, Mr Johnson says “getting Brexit done is now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people”.
Addressing the nation later in Downing Street, the PM acknowledges that many people will have voted Tory for the first time and promises to “work round the clock to repay your trust”.
From division and chaos to an eerie calm
Having experienced three years of almost permanent crisis since the 2016 referendum, British politics in the wake of Boris Johnson’s election victory seems like an alien landscape.
The PM takes the first step to delivering on his election promise to “get Brexit done”, seeing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill approved by MPs at its second reading just before Christmas.
When MPs return to Westminster at the start of 2020, the legislation continues its progress through parliament and gets royal assent.
Ratification of the deal by the European Parliament swiftly follows.
After years of rancour and division, it is a sign of Westminster’s new political reality that the last few weeks of Britain’s 47 years of EU membership are devoid of drama.
Everything is set for 31 January.
Celebration and regret as curtain comes down on EU membership
Given the divisions caused by the Brexit vote, it is no surprise that the day Britain finally leaves the bloc provokes contrasting reactions.
There are celebrations and protests, with a light show illuminating Downing Street when the clock strikes 11pm and Brexit becomes official.
Boris Johnson, who will go down in history as the PM who plotted a course out of the Brexit maze, acknowledges these contrasting emotions.
He says that while Brexit represents an “astonishing moment of hope” for many, there are others who “feel a sense of anxiety and loss”.
Although it has now formally left the bloc, Britain will continue to follow EU rules and regulations during an 11-month transition period.
The PM now has to prepare for talks on a future trade deal with the EU, with a deadline of 31 December for an agreement.
Thorny issues provoke dissent
As the first phase of Brexit enters its final days, Boris Johnson begins to turn his mind to other concerns.
But these first few weeks after Brexit demonstrate that an 80-seat majority is not an impenetrable firewall against dissent and crisis.
At the end of January, he allows Chinese telecoms firm Huawei a limited role in Britain’s 5G network.
The PM’s move comes in the face of fierce opposition from the US and a number of Tory backbenchers, who make it abundantly clear that his decision is not the end of the matter.
Mr Johnson also decides to allow construction of the HS2 high-speed rail link to go ahead, despite increasing costs and fervent opposition from some Tory MPs.
Soon after, the PM turns his attention to a major cabinet reshuffle.
But his plans to put his majority to good effect and radically reshape his top team are about to be unexpectedly blown off course.
‘I don’t believe any self-respecting minister would accept such conditions’
The resignation of Sajid Javid as chancellor shocks Westminster.
He walks away from one of the most high profile roles in government after Boris Johnson orders him to sack his aides and replace them with ones chosen by Downing Street.
Rishi Sunak, who only became an MP five years ago, is his replacement.
Mr Javid’s surprise departure is the culmination of weeks of reported tensions between him and Dominic Cummings, the PM’s controversial chief adviser.
The row is a preview of a criticism of the PM that will gain traction in the months to come – that he is too reliant on Mr Cummings and cannot handle dissent.
The first few months of the PM’s majority government have seen Britain finally leave the EU, but not everything has gone according to plan.
Little does he know that the course of his premiership is about to be changed forever.
On 23 March, Boris Johnson announces the toughest restrictions on everyday life in Britain since the Second World War to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
For the foreseeable future, Britons will – with some exceptions – only be allowed to leave the house to buy food or medicine, to exercise and to travel to and from work if it is “absolutely necessary”.
The lockdown follows an unprecedented economic intervention – the announcement that the government will pay the wages of millions of employees unable to work during the pandemic.
But could – and should – the PM have acted sooner?
The picture that has emerged so far suggests that in the early days there is a reluctance to order an unprecedented national shutdown.
Throughout the crisis, ministers have spoken about being “guided” by the science, but some scientists insist an earlier shutdown would have saved lives.
As the PM grapples with how to respond to COVID-19 in early March, the phrase “herd immunity” enters the national conversation.
Downing Street insists it was never official government policy.
But a newspaper report claims Dominic Cummings told a private engagement in February that achieving it is the government’s aim, something denied by Number 10.
As Britain adapts to the reality of life in lockdown, the PM knows he is about to be tested in ways he never imagined.
‘The NHS saved my life, no question’
For a few worrying days in April, Boris Johnson is at risk of becoming a victim of COVID-19 himself.
The PM confirms he has the virus on 27 March and is admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital a week later, spending three nights in intensive care.
The nation holds its breath.
On Easter Sunday, he is released from hospital to continue his recovery.
In a video message, the PM reveals “things could have gone either way” and declares: “The NHS has saved my life, no question.”
Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson
A little more than two weeks later, Boris Johnson is back in hospital again.
But this time it is under much happier circumstances.
His fiancee Carrie Symonds gives birth to a baby boy, Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson.
The name Nicholas is chosen in a nod to the two doctors who saved the PM’s life.
Mr Johnson is present throughout the birth and is seen beaming on his return to Number 10.
Cummings and goings
During the lockdown the government’s message is clear: stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.
But that message is undermined from within Downing Street in one of the defining moments of Boris Johnson’s first year in Number 10.
In May, it emerges Dominic Cummings drove 260 miles to his parents in Durham for childcare support after his wife displayed coronavirus symptoms at the height of lockdown.
It is also revealed that the PM’s chief adviser went for a “test drive” to Barnard Castle 30 minutes away to check if he was well enough to travel home.
Opposition parties – and dozens of Mr Johnson’s own MPs – demand the sacking of Mr Cummings.
Polls show that a majority the public thinks Mr Cummings broke the rules and should resign.
But the PM sticks by his trusted lieutenant and tries to ride the crisis out.
In an unprecedented Downing Street news conference, Mr Cummings says he does not “regret” his actions and believes he acted “reasonably”.
Durham Police later say Mr Cummings may have committed a “minor breach” by driving to Barnard Castle, but he had not “committed an offence” by travelling from London to Durham.
The PM makes it clear that he considers the matter closed and tries to move on.
But as one looks back on an extraordinary 12 months, it seems this is a controversy that will fester.
For his critics, it reinforces his unhealthy reliance on Mr Cummings and shows there is one rule for those in power and another for everyone else.
The long road back normality
After setting out a roadmap to ease the COVID-19 restrictions, Boris Johnson begins taking the country down the road towards some form of normal life.
A phased reopening of schools begins on 1 June, with non-essential retail allowed to reopen two weeks later.
In the most significant easing, pubs, restaurants, barbers and hairdressers welcome customers again on 4 July.
The two-metre social distancing rule is also relaxed, becoming “one-metre plus”.
With the delicate process of easing lockdown and getting the economy moving again under way, questions over the PM’s handling of the pandemic persist.
Ministers insist that international comparisons are not helpful, but the fact that Britain has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world cannot be easily dismissed.
Was the government too slow to increase coronavirus testing? Did ministers do enough to protect care homes from the virus? Why were there problems with the supply of vital protective equipment for those on the frontline?
These are just a few of the multitude of questions directed at the government.
There is also scrutiny and criticism of the COVID-19 travel quarantine, the stalled efforts to develop a functioning contact-tracing app and a failed attempt to get more primary school children back in class before the summer break.
Mr Johnson’s promise of a “world beating” system to trace those who catch the disease is another facet of the government’s response that comes under the spotlight.
Ministers also face accusations of being too slow to advocate the use of face masks and then offering mixed messages on when and where people should wear them.
The “mixed messages” charge is also laid at the PM when he sets out the route out of lockdown and encourages those who can to return to work.
In addition, there is a much-publicised U-turn on free school meals following a campaign by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford.
The lack of a unified “four nations” approach to easing lockdown is also noteworthy, with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland diverging in a number of areas.
All this takes a toll on the PM’s personal approval ratings, which hit a high at the start of lockdown but fall off after that.
‘Build, build, build’
As he approaches his first anniversary as prime minister, Boris Johnson clearly wants to get on with his “levelling up” vision.
Coronavirus is still on the agenda, but it is not the PM’s sole focus.
This is exemplified by the ending of the daily Downing Street COVID-19 briefing, for months a feature of lockdown life.
The PM talks of a “more significant return to normality” by Christmas.
Talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU continue, but a breakthrough proves elusive.
Having promised not to extend the transition beyond December, Mr Johnson sticks to his guns and formally tells the EU the UK will not be asking for a further delay.
The PM presses on with plans for a new post-Brexit immigration system and performs a major U-turn on Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network.
There is a hardline response to the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, amid suggestions Mr Johnson wants to stoke a culture war.
In a set piece speech detailing his coronavirus recovery plan, the PM promises to “build, build, build” and oversee an “infrastructure revolution” to see Britain through the pandemic.
Despite a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, he is determined not to be blown off course.
David Cameron will be remembered as the prime minister who gambled on settling the question of Britain’s place in the EU once and for all and lost.
Theresa May will go down in history as the leader who was unable to escape from the Brexit morass.
The stories of Boris Johnson’s two immediate predecessors show that leaders do not always get to choose what defines their time in power.
He will always be remembered as the PM who took Britain out of the EU.
But the coronavirus pandemic – and his government’s response to it – could define his time in Downing Street.
More than 40,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19, while tens of thousands have been made unemployed.
The personal and economic effects will be felt for years to come.
It will be the PM’s job to chart as smooth a course as he can out of this nightmare.
In time, the handling of the outbreak will need to be examined thoroughly, with questions asked and lessons learnt.
If the epilogue to Britain’s coronavirus crisis makes for difficult reading and reaches uncomfortable conclusions, the public may blame Mr Johnson.
After all, the buck stops with him.
However, they may give the PM the benefit of the doubt for doing his best during a crisis that took the country by surprise.
In his first year in Downing Street, Mr Johnson has run a gamut of emotions: Frustration, anger, defiance, fear, relief, excitement and joy.
Little is certain in politics, but the next 12 months promises more of the same.