In March 2019, a new One Nation Conservatives group was set up, quickly attracting the membership of dozens of MPs. The aim was to unite against a supporter of a hard Brexit replacing Theresa May as Prime Minister, in anticipation of a Tory Leadership contest. Party membership had suddenly risen to 160,000 people, partly due to defectors arriving from UKIP, attempting to bolster Brexit. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt reached the final stage – a year after the former had been replaced as Foreign Secretary by the latter. At the start of July, Nicky Morgan and Nicholas Soames, both senior backbenchers, wrote a letter on behalf of the One Nation group, asking Johnson and Hunt about their Brexit plans. Johnson’s reply expressed his wish “to make it absolutely clear that I am not attracted to arcane procedures such as the prorogation of Parliament”. There was speculation that prorogation might be planned, as a way to prevent Parliament blocking a no deal Brexit. Johnson defeated Hunt, by a margin of 66 per cent to 34 per cent, in the ballot of party members.
Johnson was appointed Prime Minister on July 24, with an untested assurance for the Queen that he commanded a majority in the House of Commons. Johnson was widely distrusted, due to his serial dishonesty and incompetence, plus racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. Most members of the previous Cabinet, including May and Hunt, immediately departed, either refusing to serve under Johnson, or being sacked. Johnson favoured hardline Brexiteers, including Priti Patel, who became Home Secretary, less than two years after leaving May’s government in disgrace. Dominic Cummings, the supposed mastermind of Vote Leave in 2016, was appointed as chief advisor by Johnson. May’s government had failed to deliver an exit from the EU, three years after the referendum, but Johnson claimed departure would happen on October 31, a date three months away, with or without a deal.
Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in the USA, during 1964, the son of Stanley Johnson, a man destined to become a Conservative MEP. During an education at Eton College and Oxford University, the privileged Boris Johnson displayed a lazy attitude to his studies. Johnson was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club at Oxford, along with David Cameron. As a journalist, Johnson was sacked by the Times in 1988 for making up a quote. He became MP for Henley in 2001, on the retirement of Michael Heseltine, and stood down in 2008, upon becoming Mayor of London. During 2004, Johnson published Seventy Two Virgins, a racist novel, and was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet for lying – dishonestly denying an affair. Womanising and infidelity has been a common thread in the Johnson story, including his infamous affair with Jennifer Arcuri, a businesswoman from the USA, who supposedly gave him technology lessons during his tenure as Mayor of London. That role ended in 2016, the year after Johnson returned to the Commons as MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Throughout his career as a journalist and politician, Johnson has cultivated an image as a buffoon, but he regularly makes offensive comments – often followed by flippant attempts at apology. Examples include Johnson referring to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, suggesting that Islamic women wearing burqas “go around looking like letter boxes”, while gay men were derided as “tank-topped bum boys”. Johnson’s misguided admirers in the Conservative Party often refer to his being “socially liberal”, but there is a lot of evidence to the contrary.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, as Leader of the House of Commons, obtained the questionable agreement from the monarch – on August 28 2019 – to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, leading up to a planned Queen’s Speech in mid-October. This was only a few weeks after Johnson’s letter to One Nation MPs, saying he would not prorogue Parliament. In defiance of the Tories’ long-prized constitutional convention, the government were seeking to prevent Parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit plans, and legal challenges began. Johnson’s rationale, “the whole September session is a rigmarole introduced by girly swot Cameron to show the public that MPs were earning their crust”, was a truly ridiculous thing for a Prime Minister to write in an official government memo.
In early September, Parliament passed what was known as the Benn Act – introduced by Hilary Benn, a Labour MP, and son of Tony – requiring Johnson to seek a further extension to Brexit if, by October 19, Parliament had not approved either a withdrawal agreement or a no deal departure. Boris Johnson withdrew the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, who voted to facilitate Parliament debating the Benn legislation. These included Nicholas Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill. Nicky Morgan, the other One Nation leader supposedly concerned about Johnson’s Brexit plans, had strangely joined his government when it was formed, and was rewarded for her loyalty to him with a peerage at the start of 2020. The punishment of 21 colleagues prompted the resignation of two Cabinet Ministers, Jo Johnson (brother of the Prime Minister) and Amber Rudd. The combined Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party MPs were now in a minority position in the Commons. Johnson, acting with increasing irrationality, said, “I’d rather be dead in a ditch”, when asked if he would seek a Brexit extension. Johnson, Gove, and other ministers floated the possibility that the government might simply ignore the law. In late September, after Parliament had been prorogued for two weeks, the Supreme Court ruled the event unlawful, and the legislature resumed sitting.
Parliament sat on a Saturday (for the first time since the Falklands War 37 years earlier), the date being October 19, to consider an amended agreement, which Johnson had reached with the EU. The Commons voted to delay any approval until the necessary legislation had been passed. Johnson sent the letter to the EU, required by the Benn Act, but petulantly refused to sign it, and also dispatched a contradictory argument against an extension. Three days later, the Commons gave a Second Reading to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, but rejected a government attempt to rush it through Parliament. Johnson announced a pause in this legislative process, and was forced to agree with the EU that Brexit would be delayed for a third time, probably until the end of January 2020. When the extension was in place, Johnson got the agreement of the House of Commons, at the fourth attempt, to an early General Election. With the polling date set as December 12 2019, Britain entered its first Winter Election since February 1974 – and the first such contest in December since 1923.
2019 General Election
At the start of the campaign, the government suppressed release of a report, from the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, on growing interference in British politics by Russia, including large scale funding of the Conservative Party by Russian oligarchs – it finally arrived the following Summer. The Conservatives sought to make Brexit the main Election issue and were helped by the Brexit Party not opposing sitting Conservative MPs. Labour proposed a programme to end austerity and rebuild the NHS plus other public services. Labour aimed to negotiate an improved deal with the EU, and put this to a second referendum, with an option to remain rather than leave.
When the results were announced, the Conservatives won 365 seats, and a majority of 80. Labour were reduced to 203 MPs, their worst total since 1935, largely due to the loss of support in areas that voted to leave the EU. The SNP took 48 seats, the Liberal Democrats 11, the Democratic Unionist Party 8, Sinn Fein 7, and the others 8. Despite great proclamations from Farage, who lacked the courage to actually stand as a candidate, the Brexit Party failed to win any seats. Many people feared what would occur under a right wing Conservative government, with a programme more extreme than the Thatcherism of the 1980s. Johnson aimed that Brexit would be followed by a trade deal with the USA, which could open up the NHS to increased privatisation. The Conservatives also planned changes to the legal and political structure of Britain that would curb opposition to the government. When the new Parliament opened, Johnson’s government reintroduced the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It became law eight days before the United Kingdom left the European Union, the latter event taking place on January 31 2020. This ended the era of EEC / EU membership, which had lasted 47 years, and the UK entered a transition period, due to expire at the end of 2020.
The first UK cases of the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic were diagnosed on the day that Brexit took place. Johnson and his government, particularly Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, took little action to alert the public to the scale of the danger. Johnson announced on March 3, “I was at a hospital the other night, where I think a few there were actually Coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands”. Johnson’s handshakes were politeness turned into pure irresponsibility. The government, and some scientific advisors, favoured the idea of attempting to create “Herd Immunity”, with Johnson saying in a national television interview, “One of the theories is that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures”. Laymen pointed out the massive number of deaths that would be likely in Britain, before the remainder of the population could hope for “Herd Immunity”. The government backed down, but the strategy remained far from clear.
The Cheltenham Festival horse race meeting went ahead as usual – allegedly due to gambling companies lobbying the government against possible cancellation – with crowds of around 60,000 people per day, something that was soon shown to have spread Covid. Other sports events were postponed, upon the decision of organising bodies, rather than government direction. The response of Johnson was complacent, until pressure from NHS staff, opposition parties, scientists, and the wider public prompted action, as the death toll rose. The government belatedly started to recommend social distancing and closed schools. Johnson did not announce the much-delayed effective lockdown until March 23.
Shortages and death
Hancock had declared the NHS to be ready for the spread of the illness, back in January. In the following months, testimony from clinicians and patients showed this was not true. Hospitals that were struggling, due to underfunding during a decade of austerity, suddenly had to deal with additional admissions of Covid patients. There was a shortage of ventilators, despite claims by the government that they were urgently arranging to increase production and acquisition. Many frontline health workers lacked the required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The UK rapidly suffered one of the largest Covid death totals, per head of population, in the world, and this continued to be the case for many months. The government placed support of the capitalist economy, and big business – the natural plus financial friends of the Tories – ahead of the need to save lives and protect the wider community.
In late May, it was revealed that Dominic Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield, had deliberately broken lockdown, while both ill with Covid, taking a trip from London to Durham. Wakefield and Cummings also published a false account, claiming that they stayed in London, self-isolating, while unwell. Despite widespread public anger, and political pressure, Johnson refused to dismiss Cummings. A few months later, Cummings departed from his role, having upset Carrie Symonds, who was Johnson’s partner, and a person with a disproportionately large influence in a power struggle within Downing Street. Lockdown eased over the late Spring and Summer, with pubs and restaurants re-opening, and then schools returned to normal in September. These events caused a rise in Covid cases, to which Johnson and his government reacted with a delayed second lockdown, lasting four weeks, from early November to the start of December. Post-Brexit negotiations, between the UK government and the EU, took place at intervals during the transition period, with increasing concern that unrealistic demands from Johnson’s team could prevent a trade deal. An agreement was finally announced on Christmas Eve, following which Parliament approved legislation on December 30, and the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020 received Royal Assent on the last day of a tumultuous year.
Johnson announced a third lockdown on January 4 2021, as the numbers of Covid cases, and deaths, moved towards a peak higher than in the first wave the previous Spring. On January 26, with over 100,000 people having died from Covid, Johnson told a press conference, “I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and, of course, as I was Prime Minister I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage and a very, very difficult crisis for our country and we will continue to do that”. Johnson’s claim that “we truly did everything we could” was not supported by the facts. Throughout the pandemic, the government displayed a grotesque combination of incompetence and corruption. Co-ordination of the national Covid Test and Trace system was outsourced to Serco, a private company, rather than being led by the NHS. The head of Test and Trace was Dido Harding, a Tory peer. Edward Argar, one of the Conservative Health ministers, was a former executive at Serco. The current chief executive of the company, Rupert Soames, was the brother of Nicholas Soames, who had recently retired as an MP. The test and trace programme failed to be effective, despite a massive budget, which increased to £37 billion in March 2021. The government also awarded hundreds of multi-million pound contracts to private companies for the procurement of PPE. Many contracts went to organisations, with little or no experience in PPE, run by people who were donors to the Conservatives, or friends of the party’s MPs. In an attempt to conceal the extent of the PPE scandal, Matt Hancock delayed publication of the contracts, which led to a High Court ruling, during February 2021, that he had acted unlawfully.
Dominic Cummings gave evidence to a House of Commons Select Committee investigating the national response to Covid at the end of May 2021. Cummings was very critical of both Johnson and Hancock for their failures to address the severity of the situation. Cummings said that, during the Spring of 2020, Hancock had been dishonestly telling government ministers, and advisors, that hospital patients would not be discharged to care homes unless they had been tested for Covid. Hancock denied the allegation of misleading colleagues, but it was a matter of public record that many thousands of people were discharged without testing, in March and April 2020. This almost certainly led to thousands of avoidable deaths, as Covid spread among elderly and vulnerable people in care homes.
In an attempt at distraction, a few days after Cummings gave evidence, Johnson suddenly got married, for the third time. His new wife, Carrie Symonds, had a brief role as head of communications for the Conservative Party, in 2017 and 2018, which ended under a cloud – there were allegations that Symonds submitted incorrect expenses claims. Covid restrictions were gradually eased in the Spring of 2021, while Johnson’s government continued to give mixed messages. Border control had been haphazard throughout the pandemic, and there was now a delay of several weeks in restricting travel from India, where Covid cases were particularly high, as Johnson sought a trade deal with the authoritarian government of that state. This led to a large number of British cases of the Delta Variant, first identified in India. On June 14, Johnson was forced to announce that the end of restrictions on social gatherings, planned for a week later, would be delayed.
At the end of June, it emerged that Matt Hancock was having an affair with Gina Coladangelo, a long-term friend, who had been appointed a director at the Department of Health and Social Care a few months earlier. Johnson declined to sack Hancock, accepting the latter’s apology for breaking workplace social distancing rules, with video from CCTV in Hancock’s office showing him kissing Coladangelo. Amidst much criticism for his latest Covid-related failure, Hancock resigned from the government the day after Johnson failed to dismiss him. The incoming Health Secretary was Sajid Javid, a former investment banker, with no experience in the field of health. Javid had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer when Johnson became Prime Minister, but departed from the role in early 2020, following a clash with Cummings. On July 5, Johnson announced the end of Covid restrictions would happen a fortnight later, despite his acknowledgement that new cases were rising fast. Javid supported this reckless move. The Covid death total in the UK was now 128,000 people, based on the government’s preferred measure, which was a death within 28 days of a positive test. A more accurate record showed that over 152,000 people had Covid mentioned as a cause on their death certificate. Johnson’s mantra was “Build Back Better”, as he spoke of post-Covid economic revival, but the evidence from 11 years of Conservative government since 2010 was not promising.
David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson were each portrayed by supporters as modern Conservatives, in touch with ordinary people. The reality was a continuation of established themes, which had motivated their party since its foundation in 1830. For nearly two centuries, the Conservative Party has been run by a wealthy and powerful minority, motivated by their narrow self-interest. For most people, Britain has been a poorer place, both morally and financially, as a result of Conservative politics.
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