Boris Johnson’s difficult second year


The first year of a government is usually the time to embark on massive reform. The theory is to get the changes in quickly, take the pain early, and then hope by the next time you face the electors that pain is a memory and the gains are starting to show.

But Boris Johnson’s first year has not looked like a normal year. His first six months – July to January – were a single minded mission to “get Brexit Done”.

To do that the government was prepared to bulldoze away any roadblock: Parliament (risking bringing the Queen into disrepute over prorogation), the parliamentary Conservative party (by chucking out dissidents), and the union (by putting a border in the Irish Sea).

But he succeeded in finalising the UK’s exit from the EU, and picked up an unexpectedly large majority in the process.

2020 should have been the year of completing Brexit and starting to put that mandate to use to deliver, giving the government a chance to reward the voters in the Red Wall constituencies who had switched to backing the Conservatives.

Instead March to July has been dominated by the business-as-not-at-all usual of coping with a global pandemic. The one normal month – February – the PM appeared to take off to sort out his complicated personal life.

The government is now trying to turbocharge its domestic agenda. It seems to be going through what former Education secretary Charles Clarke once called the ‘Too Difficult Box’ and pulling out wicked issue after wicked issue.

This week we have seen the government commit to tackle obesity, though its strategy can only be described as looking rather thin.

Nobody is pro-obesity, but successive governments have failed to find a way to counter the obesogenic environments we live in which make it too easy to lead sedentary rather than active lifestyles and make cheap un-nutritious calories the default choice.

The Prime Minister’s reinvention as the nation’s second most famous body coach may be necessary, but the measures the government has dreamt up so far look far from sufficient: when needing to counter a lockdown where 40% of people say they have gained weight, an appeal to eat for Britain which will see the government offer cheap burgers and pizzas to the nation seems odd.

Alongside the obesity strategy came a new plan to promote more active travel – cycling and walking – neglected for too long and a source of many win/wins for health and the environment. But getting people to forsake their cars in an age of Covid-19 makes an already difficult challenge even harder.

To add to the mix we got the first building blocks of what the authors say is the first National Food Strategy in 75 years – designed to bring together health, trade, security of supply and sustainable production.

But it’s not just the wicked lifestyle problems the government is bent on solving. We are promised – finally – a definitive solution to social care, with new faces drafted into Downing Street.

Covid-19 has given the need more impetus, but so far has done nothing to solve the problems of labour shortages, a fragmented and precarious sector and sustained underfunding.

Labour tried a solution in 2009; Cameron commissioned and then buried the Dilnot report; Theresa May tried to get an electoral mandate for reform, but ended up getting a big electoral raspberry.

Meanwhile the government has promised to tackle the long-standing inequalities that have beset the nation. Not just health inequalities, exposed starkly by Covid-19, but enduring regional inequalities in economic performance and prosperity.

Levelling up is much easier said than done – particularly when the economic prospects suggest that any ‘up’ cannot be taken for granted. Add to that the new impetus to tackle racial inequalities in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

For now that has been kicked to a commission, but they are due to report by the end of the year, and the government is already under pressure for its record in failing to implement the changes recommended by earlier reviews.

On top of that the government has embarked on a three year spending review – the first since 2015 – to be concluded in the autumn, with the repair of threadbare public services at the top of the agenda.

Also on the list is the need to work up a plan to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 (arguably a much bigger economic decision than either the response to Covid-19 or Brexit) and start on a big agenda of civil service reform.

All this is going on while the government is completing the integrated review of defence and foreign policy, resetting relations with China, and addressing concerns (well, sort of) about Russian interference.

In 2021, Britain needs to prepare for the presidency of the G7 and host a critical climate change conference in November.

Add to the list keeping the union together in the face of growing nationalist pressure in Scotland in the run-up to the Holyrood elections and beyond, when everything suggests Nicola Sturgeon may come back with her own thumping mandate.

Meanwhile the pandemic has not gone away and may return with a vengeance in the autumn – while the economy will start to feel the impact of ripping away the protective blanket of the furlough scheme.

On top of that the government needs to finalise a possible Brexit deal, and get business ready for an inevitably disruptive end to transition when it is already struggling under the coronavirus cosh.

The hectic Johnson first year has left the civil service exhausted and ministers in desperate need of a holiday. But they need to gear back up for a year which may decide whether the government can set a course for us to become a slimmer, greener, fairer safer and still intact nation.

This is an agenda that would challenge the most competent and experienced ever government, let alone an inexperienced and one with big question marks over its competence.

Second albums are always harder than the first breakthrough best seller. Boris Johnson may find the same is true of his second year.

By Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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