In Boris Johnson’s first year since winning a majority of 80, he has shed as many key aides as most prime ministers do in a full term. He’s already on to his second chancellor and his second cabinet secretary, while two of his one-time closest Downing Street advisers are now firmly on the outside.
Even for a politician famed for reinvention, it risks looking careless. He’s also seen his relationship with his parliamentary party plummet – he has gone from being viewed as a freedom-loving Brexiteer who delivered them the party’s largest majority since Margaret Thatcher to an “authoritarian” politician at odds with many of his MPs on the issue of the day: coronavirus.
The problem for the prime minister is that going into 2021, there is little to suggest his problems are subsiding any time soon. If anything, they are about to get worse.
As Covid cases rise, doctors raise the alarm and calls for a full lockdown grow, Johnson is going to have to make more unpopular decisions. “It’s hard to state how bad January and February are going to be,” says a Downing Street staffer.
The plan to push recess back by a week has angered MPs concerned by the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of decisions. According to one senior Tory, it has “lit the touchpaper” on a wider discussion over the handling of Covid. The WhatsApp groups are filled with questions on school reopenings, the Nightingale hospitals and an exit strategy.
But for all the bad news, in Downing Street there is still optimism that next year can in the medium term be much better than what came before. That is not just because 2020 is such a low bar. It is down to changes currently being made.
The completion of a Brexit deal on Christmas Eve is viewed as the first step to a brighter political landscape. While Johnson was insistent he would proceed with no deal if necessary, his closest ministers and aides were concerned about the disruption it could bring.
The deal, which is seen by Johnson’s party as delivering on the key aim of sovereignty, has also served to remind MPs on its libertarian wing that they do still have something in common with him. “A lot of us have looked at the past few months and decided the government is incompetent; the Brexit deal shows that actually the PM can get things done,” says an MP from the 2015 intake.
But any reputation for competence in the long term rests on a successful vaccine rollout. The hope is that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine – hailed a “game changer” by one cabinet minister – will be approved in the coming days and the vaccination programme can then be intensified. Without that, there is a fear that 2021 could look a lot like 2020.
If approved, the debate will turn to how many people need to be vaccinated before restrictions go. The majority of the cabinet take the view that once you have vaccinated everyone on the first priority list (everyone aged 50 and over, plus those aged 16 and over with underlying health conditions), then the bulk – if not all – of the restrictions should go. Johnson is also thought to be keen to get rid of constraints as soon as possible. However, government aides are braced for a battle – they anticipate opposition from some in the scientific community against a full unwinding.
While Johnson’s promises of a return to normal are now a running joke among his colleagues, there is another reason why his party sees this spring deadline as critical: the local elections in May.
As well as the crucial Scottish parliament elections that the Scottish National party will try to use to secure a second referendum on independence, the local elections will offer the first public judgment of Johnson’s premiership since the general election. Bad results for the Conservatives could act as a trigger for fed-up Tories seeking change.
The hope in Downing Street is that Tory MPs will find their concerns soothed in 2021. The departure of Vote Leave aides and the arrival of the new chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, and press spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, is meant to herald a less combative era with more parliamentary outreach.
“There’s going to be a shift now Brexit is done,” says a member of the government. “The prime minister gets it. It’s going to be about competence. No one could call Dan or Allegra rightwing headbangers.” However, those hoping for promotion may have to wait until the spring for a reshuffle.
The new press team has been meeting ministers and, with the Downing Street studio nearly complete (“wood panels and union jacks”, according to a recent visitor), public press conferences will begin in the new year.
But while MPs are quick to compliment the new “tone” from No 10, it isn’t long until many start to tell you that the policy remains the same and therefore their objections remain. The calculation – and hope – in government is that a lot of this will subside once Covid restrictions eventually go.
Yet there is plenty to suggest disagreement lies elsewhere. There is little consensus in today’s parliamentary party on fiscal policy, cultural issues or planning reform. Even the much trumpeted “level up” agenda risks angering southern MPs on the prioritisation of funds. These are the issues that are going to receive more attention as Brexit fades and Covid eventually eases.
And this is where the biggest risk lies for Johnson in 2021: who will MPs blame when something goes wrong? If restrictions run past the spring? If the union looks in jeopardy? If tax rises land in the wrong place?
Over the past year, angered MPs have been quick to turn on those around Johnson, whether it was bad comms, bad scientific advice or simply the existence of Dominic Cummings. That’s beginning to change. “A lot of the people who were being blamed for mistakes are now gone,” observes one Conservative MP. Another adds: “He doesn’t have an obvious human shield.”
The prime minister enters the new year with the hope that he can get his premiership back on track with new aides to help him achieve it. But in doing so, Johnson has also made himself more politically accountable. As a parliamentary colleague puts it: “You can get rid of the team once. The next time things go wrong people might conclude that you are the problem – not the people around you.”