After botched Covid policies, Brexit wrangling and a string of U-turns and scandals, his time is finally up
A fter a little over 1,100 days of Covid briefings and Dominic Cummings, Brexit deals and booze-filled suitcases, the lurching Big Dipper ride that was Boris Johnson’s prime ministership is finally drawing to a close.
Since he was force to quit, many Conservative party members have bemoaned his resignation, and his supporters in the media have glossed over the many calamities of his premiership to declare him a “great leader”.
Here we remember (some of) the significant points of his time in Downing Street – and how the accumulation of mishaps and mistakes finally led his own party to force him out.
They do say start as you mean to go on. And in Johnson’s case, barely a month after taking over from an ousted Theresa May, that meant announcing plans to suspend parliament for five weeks.
Johnson said it was so he could introduce “a bold and ambitious domestic legislative agenda”. Labour called it “an utterly scandalous affront to our democracy” and a transparent attempt to block parliamentary scrutiny of his Brexit deal negotiations, then (still) ongoing. Eventually, the supreme court ruled the move was “unlawful, void, and of no effect”, and abnormal service resumed.
Welcome to the Johnson premiership.
The prime minister was still technically married to the second of his wives when it emerged that an American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, had received large sums of public money and attended trade trips with Johnson while he was London mayor.
The PM, who denied anything inappropriate, was referred to the police watchdog, the IOPC, which eventually declined to prosecute but said he should have declared their relationship.
She later said they had been having a four-year affair at the time, and that he had offered to be “the thrust – the throttle” in her career.
Days after his divorce from Marina Wheeler was later finalised, Johnson’s engagement to Carrie Symonds and her first pregnancy were announced.
Where to begin in retelling the story of Johnson’s handling of Covid? Perhaps with the assessment by one of his own advisers that his initial delay in introducing lockdown, while ignoring the pleas of public health experts, led to 20,000 extra deaths? Or with the government’s early stated aim to achieve “herd immunity”? Perhaps with the “protective ring” around nursing homes – that in fact involved discharging patients, untested, from hospital, contributing to the virus’s devastating spread among elderly residents?
Then there was his resistance to an autumn “circuit breaker” and the PM’s reported comment: “Let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” And the delay to another lockdown in late 2020, which caused an additional 27,000 deaths, according to the Resolution Foundation thinktank. And the following year’s vow to “save Christmas” until Johnson screeched to another dramatic last minute U-turn just days before the festival.
An attempt to tell the full story will begin at a public inquiry next year. Current total UK deaths attributed to Covid, meanwhile: 202,000.
Johnson’s government rightly won praise for successes in rolling out vaccines and developing treatments, with Britons among the first in the world to be vaccinated.
Its much trumpeted “world-beating” test-and-trace system, however – not so much. Despite its staggering £37bn cost – equivalent to about a fifth of the entire NHS England annual budget – MPs said in a scathing report that the scheme had made no measurable difference at all to the course of the pandemic. Enough to make you wonder whether consultants really are worth £6,000 a day.
Warnings about low stocks of PPE before the pandemic had been ignored by the government, meanwhile, which meant critical shortages as the virus hit. In its scramble to catch up, the government set up an (illegal) priority channel for firms with political connections. Contracts worth billions were handed to scores of unlikely companies – including a takeaway box supplier run by Matt Hancock’s former pub landlord, who got the £40m contract after sending the former health secretary a message on WhatsApp.
Britain’s lockdown was only four days old when it was announced the prime minister, the health secretary and the chief medical officer had all tested positive for Covid; Johnson had only “mild symptoms”, aides said.
Ten days later, he was abruptly admitted to St Thomas’ hospital, and then to intensive care, where he spent three nights. Johnson would later say the hospital staff had saved his life.
One of them, a nurse who had cared for the PM in hospital, later resigned over the government’s “lack of respect” for NHS workers.
As Johnson’s chief adviser, Cummings was one of the main architects of the government’s Covid restrictions. Inconvenient, then, when the Guardian and Mirror sensationally revealed that he had driven with his family to a family second home in Durham while symptomatic for Covid.
He refused to resign or apologise, Johnson said he had acted “responsibly, legally and with integrity”, and the government’s authority to impose Covid restrictions never recovered.
Barnard Castle, to which Cummings said he had driven one day to test his eyesight, had a tourist spike as a result, however, so that was something.
Johnson’s choice for education secretary, the fireplace salesman turned sacked former minister Gavin Williamson, had a full summer season of cock-ups in 2020, with first confusion and disarray over dates for the reopening of schools, then an embarrassing U-turn over free food vouchers for the neediest children, shamed by the footballer Marcus Rashford.
Williamson’s ultimate fiasco, however, came when he instituted an algorithm to allocate students of the cancelled A-levels their grades, insisted there would be no U-turn when the system’s flaws became apparent, then abruptly scrapped it after universities had already made their offers.
Labour called him “the most ignorant, clueless and incapable education secretary in the UK’s history”. And yet somehow the key Johnson ally, who had run the PM’s campaign for party leader, kept his job for another year, and then got a knighthood.
Like the Santa children never knew they wanted, Johnson’s gift to Britain on Christmas Eve 2020 was a skin-of-the-teeth trade deal. “This deal is fantastic news,” a Downing Street spokesperson said, and in the sense that it narrowly avoided a “no deal” that the Office for Budget Responsibility said would cost £40bn and 300,000 jobs in 2021 alone, no doubt he was right. Since then, Johnson has repeatedly lauded that he “got Brexit done”.
Two years later, the OBR believes Brexit will be responsible for £100bn a year in lost economic output for the UK, and the country will have the lowest growth in the G20 apart from sanctioned Russia.
Separate trading arrangements negotiated by Johnson over Northern Ireland were so “fantastic” – his words – that his government has spent several years trying to override them, and international law. Johnson recently admitted that he had agreed to the trade terms hoping the EU would not apply them.
As one reporter said: “Prime minister – you must be furious with whoever signed up to a deal this bad.”
Incoming prime ministers are allocated £30,000, or roughly what an average person earns in a year, to redecorate the Downing Street flat when they move in – an allowance that feels particularly generous when you are on to your fourth PM in six years.
This sum was not enough for the Johnsons when they began remodelling in April 2020, however. It was Cummings – who had left after a reported turf war with Carrie Johnson – who first revealed the PM’s plan to have Tory donors “secretly” pay for a truly extraordinary makeover, later estimated at more than £200,000, by the designer Lulu Smythe.
The electoral commission launched an inquiry and subsequently fined the Conservative party for improperly declaring donations. Johnson insisted he had (eventually) paid for the refurb himself.
As the US and British military exit from Afghanistan precipitated Kabul’s imminent collapse to the Taliban, Johnson was savaged by his own MPs, for “the UK’s biggest humiliation since Suez”.
After the evacuation ended it emerged that tens of thousands of desperate Afghans had been “left to die at the hands of the Taliban”, unable to access British help thanks to catastrophic failures at the Foreign Office.
But did the prime minister urge officials to prioritise evacuating an animal charity from the city, including its cats and dogs? “Complete nonsense,” said Johnson. Two leaked emails suggested otherwise.
A Foreign Office whistleblower later said it was “widespread knowledge” that the PM had asked for the charity to be prioritised.
Brexit, being a triumph, was not behind the supply chain crunch of late summer 2021, ministers said, which was all caused by Britain’s bounceback from Covid and not the 1.3 million foreign workers who had left the UK since the start of the pandemic. Odd that the huge queues outside petrol stations that somehow affected only the UK and not other European countries.
No, Brexit was “actually part of the solution”, said the transport secretary Grant Shapps, though in the end the actual solution was 5,000 emergency visas issued to HGV drivers, which the government had vowed it would not do.
The former minister Paterson committed an “egregious” breach of parliamentary rules by repeatedly lobbying on behalf of two companies he worked for, the parliamentary standards commissioner found in response to a Guardian investigation.
He vowed to fight suspension from parliament; rather than uphold the independent report, however, Johnson opted to ignore the commissioner’s findings and moved to abolish the entire system of regulation altogether.
Labour cried corruption, Johnson U-turned, Paterson resigned and the Lib Dems romped to a historic victory in the subsequent byelection. A triumph all round.
Fifty thousand people had already died of Covid when the first lockdown parties were taking place in Downing Street in May 2020 – cheese and wine in the garden, a “bring your own booze” event, leaving dos, Johnson’s birthday event, an alleged party blasting Abba from the Downing Street flat.
But it was only at the end of 2021 when the first reports began emerging, with public outrage fully stoked when aides were pictured joking about how to cover up a drunken Christmas party.
The revelations – suitcases of booze! A party the night before Prince Philip’s funeral! – kept coming; police and the senior civil servant Sue Gray investigated. The affair concluded with fines for 83 people, including Johnson – making him the first prime minister in history to be criminally sanctioned.
And yet somehow the prime minister stayed in post, even seeing off – if hardly emphatically – a no-confidence vote among his own MPs.
Johnson’s government was dogged by a succession of sexual scandals, most them much more serious than Matt Hancock’s resignation over an office snog in breach of social distancing rules.
Delyn MP Rob Roberts was suspended for six weeks in May 2021 for sexual harassment of a member of his staff. David Warburton, MP for Somerset and Frome, had the whip suspended in April 2022 over allegations of sexual harassment and cocaine use.
Tiverton and Honiton’s Neil Parish insisted he had merely been looking for information about tractors when he watched porn in the Commons, and lost his seat to the Lib Dems. Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed in May 2022 for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy; his Wakefield seat was claimed by Labour.
Meanwhile an unnamed Conservative MP remains unofficially barred from the House of Commons after being arrested and bailed over rape claims.
And it was, in the end, a scandal involving sexual misconduct that finally ended Johnson’s premiership. The unfortunately named Tory MP Chris Pincher set the wheels in motion when he stepped down from government after being accused of drunkenly groping two men.
Pincher had resigned once already from the whips’ office over allegations of inappropriate behaviour when Johnson made him a minister in 2019; but did the PM know about further allegations (denied by the MP) when he promoted the MP?
Downing St said he did not, then admitted he did. Johnson said he “bitterly regretted” appointing him, but not whether he had called the MP “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”.
For colleagues tired of defending him, enough was (finally) enough.
With an unrepentant “Them’s the breaks!” Johnson finally agreed to leave Downing St on 7 July – but not until the Tories chose a new leader in September.
What has followed is a summer of severe heatwaves and wildfires, strikes on the railways, London Underground, in dockyards, outside courts and among postal workers, dizzying inflation rates and a terrifying hike in the energy bill cap, all while sewage is spewing into the sea around Britain.
The crisis prime minister, meanwhile, has had a busy summer flying a Typhoon fighter jet, hosting sausage barbecues, throwing a belated wedding party, and holidaying in Slovenia and Greece.