One Year On From Election Victory, How 2020 Exposed Boris Johnson As Never Before

The prime minister’s leadership has been marred by U-turns, blunders and rebellions.

Sleep deprived, but still buzzing with the adrenaline of his election success, Boris Johnson was among the few people neither drunk nor hungover as he arrived at the Tory party victory rally at the QEII conference centre one year ago.

Having bulldozed his way through the campaign (quite literally in that memorable footage of him smashing a wall labelled ‘Gridlock’), he was at pains to strike a unifying note. Directly addressing former Labour voters who had delivered his majority in the “Red Wall” of the midlands and the north, Johnson thanked them for switching to “us Conservatives, one nation Conservatives for the first time”.

After a Christmas Caribbean holiday with his fiance Carrie Symonds, his political honeymoon continued through the start of 2020, culminating in a fireworks display on January 31 to mark the UK finally leaving the EU.

Yet on the very day he had “got Brexit done” (a phrase as deceptive as it was effective), the first case of Covid-19 was registered in the UK. The coronavirus that had been silently killing thousands in China had hit landfall in Europe and Britain was to prove no exception.

Covid naturally dominated the first year of Johnson’s new government. But just how has he coped over the past 12 months, not just with the health crisis, but also in delivering on the Tory manifesto that got him elected in the first place? In a year of setbacks and U-turns, a year of hospitalisation, divorce and new fatherhood, has he lived up – or down – to expectations?

Delegating or abrogating responsibility?

Boris Johnson in happier times.
Boris Johnson in happier times.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

In that speech on the morning after the triumph of the night before, the re-elected prime minister declared: “I will make it my mission to work night and day, to work flat-out to prove you right in voting for me.”

That pledge to work “night and day” was soon called into question in February as he spent nearly a fortnight at the ministerial mansion of Chevening in Kent. Despite pleas to visit areas hit by flooding in Storm Dennis, and despite the first Cobra emergency meetings on Covid taking place in London, the PM remained with his partner at the 17th century lakeside residence.

The muttering in Whitehall was that he didn’t work weekends, but this seemed another level of laid back leadership. Insiders said the PM spent a chunk of the time sorting out his messy divorce from wife Marina. There are rumours, denied, that he was even trying to finish a book on Shakespeare that he had promised publishers would be published by April.

As the Covid crisis spiralled, the PM finally called the first national lockdown – yet within weeks he was struck down by the virus and spent three days in intensive care. He recovered, but for MPs inside and outside his party, his absence exposed one of the big failures of the past 12 months: the lack of a strong cabinet who could either replace him or stand up to him.

One former cabinet colleague of Johnson’s puts it bluntly: “This is a third-rate cabinet, the worst I’ve known in 50 years. He’s paranoid about people being better than him. He won’t even let Penny Mordaunt (former DfID secretary now a mere minister of state) in. It’s not so much cutting down tall poppies as giving the lawn a razor cut. Ask most MPs in the party which of this cabinet would have made it into Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet and the answer is very round indeed: zero.”

One MP actually warned Johnson in 2018 that if he ever became PM he should not repeat the Mayor of London model that had served him well in City Hall. “I told him that as Mayor you’re directly elected and your deputies aren’t, so no matter how good they are, they’re not a challenge to you. In cabinet, it’s not like that.”

Through 2020, many of the cabinet were indeed exposed to accusations of incompetence or irrelevance. Priti Patel was rarely let on the airwaves as bullying allegations dogged her and Gavin Williamson was embroiled in the summer exams fiasco.

Paul Goodman, editor of the activists’ website ConservativeHome, said: “It’s not a stellar collection. The people you can put out front of house are basically the chancellor [Rishi Sunak], [Matt] Hancock up to a point, [Grant] Shapps and [Michael] Gove.”

But Gove, who was meant to oversee Brexit as well as handling large parts of the Covid response, divides opinion. “Gove talks a great story but he couldn’t run a fucking whelk stall,” says one former cabinet colleague. “Believe me, I’ve seen him in action. Like Boris, he’s a journalist, very good at attracting good headlines but that’s it.”

One ex-minister is scathing. “At first I thought, oh well, he’ll be growing new talent and they’ll learn their way and then make the mistakes and get their feet under the table. And when he has a crisis in a couple of years time, they’ll be able to cope with it. Of course crises don’t come conveniently. And in this case the crisis came straight away. On Covid, we’ve been the worst in the world, the worst economic results, the worst medical results.”

Just as his immune system was exposed to Covid, his whole style of politics was exposed by Covid and the huge pressures it placed on statecraft, critics say.

Another key problem that emerged was Johnson’s reliance on chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who at the start of the year embarked on a war with the media, the BBC, the courts and others. Before Covid hit the UK, Cummings tried to centralise the system of special advisers, attempting to put No.10 more in control.

“The problem with centralisation is you have more decisions to make, and you have to make them quickly and won’t be well briefed on them. Which means making decisions on the basis of instinct and judgment and history and previous repertoire,” says one former senior minister. “But that doesn’t work when you fill Number 10 with people who had no history of government, no previous repertoire. That meant that the error rate in the running of government went up dramatically – even before Covid.”

Several Tory MPs however believe Johnson has done his best with the terrible hand dealt him in 2020. One former cabinet minister said: “He wasn’t my choice as leader and I’m no cheerleader for him but I think he hasn’t done badly.” They said the UK’s open economy made it susceptible to importing the virus, the lack of a testing capacity was inherited from previous governments and even on the timing of lockdown Johnson followed scientific advice. “It was the opposite of negligence, a lot of thought was given to the timing,” they said.

Manifesto promises

Johnson gives a press conference in March to outline the response to Covid-19.
Johnson gives a press conference in March to outline the response to Covid-19.

In assessing a prime minister’s first year, the usual practice is to check their manifesto and other promises against delivery. The Institute for Government think tank runs its own policy tracker and it shows just what a mixed bag of performances different Whitehall departments have produced. HuffPost UK’s own manifesto audit (see below) shows many promises remain unmet.

Some key pledges such as hiring more nurses, more police and starting hospital rebuilds appear to be on track. The immigration bill’s point-based system was passed into law (“Boris has killed that issue stone dead but doesn’t get enough credit for it,” says one insider).

Constitutional change has been watered down but a start has been made on scrapping the fixed term parliaments act. Investment in schools and infrastructure has started, albeit after years of underfunding. But social care remains a massive policy vacuum.

In many ways however, the manifesto itself was deliberately thin. Spooked by Theresa May’s “dementia tax” blunder, as well as having to be drafted rapidly for a snap election in December 2019, the promises were slimmed down.

Alex Thomas, a former senior civil servant and now programme director at the IFG, said: “A lot of the cautious ‘ticks’ on our policy tracker are about giving more money to stuff. And that’s easy for governments. The question of whether it’s money well spent comes a few years down the line, but the actual kind of administrative process of it is as straightforward as the Treasury’s stroke of a pen.

“Obviously the huge question mark over it all is Brexit. The manifesto said we will negotiate a trade agreement, so the next few days will be quite determinative for that. Of the two other big gaps, the first is on social care, it’s become the third rail of British politics. The other one is on ‘levelling up’, which depends on whether you see this just as more money and infrastructure. But levelling up as a thing still doesn’t seem to me much more than a branding exercise.”

He adds that a lack of “bandwidth” in Whitehall caused by Covid and Brexit, coupled with a lack of detailed plans, means that many policies are not accompanied by 500-page White Papers seen under previous governments. “This is a prime minister that likes the moonshots and bold ambitions. The big test for the next four years is whether they can back that up with the really kind of granular plans for getting stuff done. More than any individual policy area, that is a gap,” Thomas says.

“They should be able to make the legal and policy changes that they want. But the most significant changes that voters will notice take years to actually make happen. Whether they’ve got the administrative time to have changes on the ground, particularly on things like ‘levelling up’, we shall see. They might have a story to tell, but whether they will have changed the country, I don’t know.”

Greg Clark, the former business secretary who alongside Jeremy Hunt is jointly overseeing a Commons inquiry into “lessons learned” from the Covid crisis, had a key role in drafting the 2005 Tory manifesto.

He points out that the 1979 Thatcher manifesto was not a detailed programme, and didn’t suffer for that. “I think the thinner the manifesto the better and the more confidence that it entails. Delivering Brexit and levelling up were the two principal things and you have to concede that this government continues to be deadly serious about both. ‘Levelling up’ not only communicated a vision that resulted in a big majority but actually has been the lodestar everyone talks about.”

The Treasury’s “Green Book” rules on value for money have been changed to allow more government investment outside the south east. Clark says that, plus a continued focus on industrial strategy, builds on the key insight of people like the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane that even a small improvement in productivity in small and middle-sized towns can make a huge impact in narrowing inequality across England.

Former minister Tracey Crouch says that the manifesto was clearly a “one nation” Tory prospectus but the government has sometimes failed to frame its economic response to coronavirus in similar terms. “Increasing Universal Credit, the furlough scheme itself, were both big one nation policies. But we didn’t communicate that effectively.”

Crouch points to the Tories’ review of gambling laws that has started (an issue over which she resigned from the May government), plus its moves to bring rough sleepers off the streets during the pandemic. “The manifesto was really conscious of various social divides that he wants to bridge. I suspect that the one word that would sum up 2020 for the prime minister is ‘frustrating’, because there’s a lot he wanted to do on a social policy side of things that he’s just not been able to do.”

Levelling up or levelling down?

Crouch’s seat in Kent is one of several taken from Labour after Blair, with working class voters shifting to the Tories long before the Red Wall was a phenomenon. “I still think of my seat as a Labour seat. There’s nowhere in my constituency that’s rich. But people vote Conservative because of that mixture of compassion and aspiration. It’s about giving people hope and opportunity, while supporting them through circumstances that are beyond their control. That’s the real Boris and I just hope we see more of it in 2021.”

Salma Shah, a former special adviser to chancellor Sajid Javid, is more sceptical about the “levelling up” agenda. She floats the idea that Johnson and Theresa May may have been unlucky with the timing of their respective premierships. “They were prime ministers at the wrong time. She would have been very good with Covid, very methodical. He would have been very good after the referendum in just getting Brexit through.”

She also queries Johnson’s connection with what is known as “White Van Man (and Woman)” votes. “I’ve not seen anyone really articulate what ‘levelling up’ means. He can’t articulate what connects him to those voters. And the danger is the voters are projecting onto him what they want to think. That’s why he’s a brilliant campaigner, but it doesn’t make for delivery of concrete policy.”

One former insider has a similar take. ”Because he’s also so amiable and so socially agile or elastic, you almost get to the point where people can project onto him,” they said. “Boris does allow other people to paint what they want to see on him. I have asked myself ‘was Boris the guy that I sold to other people?’ Or was that me thinking I was putting paint on the canvas, when in fact all I was doing was holding the fucking easel?”

A strange kind of majority

Dominic Cummings leaves Downing Street.
Dominic Cummings leaves Downing Street.
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

A major problem caused by the Cummings tenure in Downing Street in 2020 was not just the way he undermined the government’s Covid messaging with his infamous trip to Barnard Castle. The senior aide’s loathing of the Tory party in parliament caused MPs to question the PM’s judgment and led to serial rebellions as U-turns on everything from free school meals to summer exams proceeded.

Paul Goodman suggests that the majority of 80 has been undermined by a long term rise in backbench rebellions by newer MPs, “research groups” and “a culture of WhatsApp that the whips can’t get a handle on”. Many Tories are ready to put up a fight against tax rises to pay for the pandemic and some are furious about Covid restrictions.

“He’s basically a bread and circuses politician – ‘are you not entertained?’ – cut taxes, borrow more, build bridges, let’s not worry about tomorrow. That was fine when you had room for maneuver but Covid changed all that. Unless we accelerate our way out with a ‘Roaring Twenties’ growth and so on.”

Even though the Tories are still polling a healthy 40% against Labour, Goodman points out that ConservativeHome’s panel of activists now puts the PM in negative rating territory, a dramatic shift from his 93% approval rating last December. For some MPs, the disruption of Covid has been matched by the chaos of Johnson’s leadership style.

“Anyone who’s ever worked with him, knows it’s going to be a kind of non-logical process, intuitive, contradictory, deliberate attempts to conceal what he really thinks,” Goodman says. One government insider actually confides that even if Covid had not happened, “the chaos would have been exposed, but in a different sort of way”.

Goodman adds that the underlying problems of a Johnson premiership have been laid bare over the past 12 months. “At the time of the Tory leadership we had the line from Batman, reversed: He’s not the leader we deserve, he’s the leader the Tories need right now, to get Brexit done and to see off Corbyn. But it was never likely he would run a competent government because he is himself.”

Green shoots?

But there is one policy area that many Tories and even those outside government think could offer Johnson a real chance to get on the front foot in 2021: the environment.

Like partner Carrie Symonds, the PM has been immersed for years in the green movement thanks to his father Stanley and brother Leo. Close friends Ben and Zac Goldsmith have been hugely influential too. The decision to inject £4bn into energy efficiency, while short of the sums some wanted, was bigger than anything Labour or Cameron or May did in office.

Recent new targets to double the pace of carbon-cutting across the UK economy, to power every home with wind energy and to end all sales of petrol and diesel vehicles in just nine years (something even Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t get past trade unions) have impressed some in the sceptical environmental movement.

Overnight on Saturday, on the anniversary of Johnson’s election, his big new policy announcement was that the UK would no longer invest in overseas fossil fuel projects, a change welcomed by Greenpeace and others.

Joss Garman, UK director at the European Climate Foundation, praised the progress. “But of course the hard part will be turning them into reality and doing that in a way, which sustains strong public support. It remains to be seen if the policy detail will match the PM’s rhetoric but done right, No.10 can ensure towns across the country benefit from all the jobs there will be making electric cars and batteries, installing charging points and clean heating systems, and exporting our clean energy technologies to the rest of the world.

“If Johnson and Sunak can put the detailed investment plans in place to realise this big jobs stimulus, they will be able to demonstrate a green recovery to the rest of the world, which could help unlock similar promises from other major economies at the G7 and COP26 next year.”

Manifesto co-author Rachel Wolf has been another key figure arguing for green policy as a way to boost jobs and skills in less well off areas, as has north east MP and former minister Simon Clarke. With the UK hosting the delayed COP26 climate talks next year, as well as the G7 summit, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it bought Johnson time for the arrival of the Biden administration and the Chinese government’s shift towards tougher climate targets.

Coming out of recession will also be key to building on the green agenda too. The IFG’s Alex Thomas says the real policy delivery that will most affect the government is not in its manifesto but in its vaccine rollout programme. “I think the vaccine is everything. If they get it right then that offers a real chance for sort of substantial reset and will be a very significant achievement. Get it wrong and that will not knock them enormously off course.

“Keeping the economic wheels spinning in the early phases of the pandemic was probably the most significant decision they took and the manifesto pales into insignificance to that really. If there is a Brexit deal and a vaccine rollout, then actually that will create quite a lot of political space for them to get cracking on the rest of the agenda.”

Greg Clark says that the most pivotal decisions of the government were to invest early in vaccines and also to extend furlough to ensure a bounceback in the spring of next year could be fully exploited.

“A lot of jobs that would otherwise have gone will resume in the spring. Brexit aside, I think the prospects for 2021 are really quite bright. I think once we are released from the [Covid] measures, growth will be very substantial. RBS is forecasting growth of 5.5% next year and 6.6% after that, and that will feel pretty buoyant to people by contrast to what they’ve experienced.

“If we get a Brexit deal, we could literally start 2021, with some exuberance and solid ground for thinking that 2021 could really be a year in which we put 2020 behind us. If we don’t, it injects its own problems, both in terms of confidence, but also in terms of the reality of tariffs and checks and disruption.”

And with uncanny timing, Johnson’s first anniversary since his election win coincides with talks with the EU about that Brexit deal currently on a knife-edge. On Sunday, we will all know whether the past year will get better, or whether 2020’s chaos will continue.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen
Getty Images



“Get Brexit done” was the focus of the manifesto and the UK did indeed leave the EU on January 1 with Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.

But what “done” really means is open to question, given negotiations on a trade deal are still ongoing with less than three weeks to go to the end of the transition on December 31.

There are also still questions over how the aspects of the withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland will operate, with the UK and EU only reaching “agreement in principle” on checks on trade in the province.

A pledge to replace the EU’s common agricultural policy based on “public money for public goods” is also on track with a plan revealed in November.

Health and social care

Promises to hire 50,000 more nurses and arrange 50 million more GP appointments are on track, but think tanks warn much more progress is needed on social care.

Sally Warren, director of Policy at The King’s Fund, said: “The prime minister’s promise to ‘fix social care once and for all’ rings hollow to a sector that has been on the frontline of the pandemic and seen tens of thousands of deaths.

“The spending review yet again pushed back the timetable for reform, and there has been no progress on the cross-party consensus that the manifesto pledged to deliver.

“Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated issues that the manifesto commitments sought to address, including shortages of critical health and care staff, a dysfunctional social care system and crumbling buildings across the NHS estate.”

The NHS has received no new multi-year funding for training or recruitment and there is still no funded strategy to deliver new staff.

Home Office

The key pledge to introduce an Australian-style points based immigration system will be fulfilled from January 1, along with an health surcharge for migrants to use the NHS.

The promise to recruit 20,000 extra police officers by 2023 is currently on track, with more than 4,300 taken on in England, as of the latest figures in July.

A pledge to cut the number of foreign nationals in prisons has attracted controversy, with a backlash and legal action against deportation flights to, for example, Jamaica.

Serious Violence Reduction Orders (SVROs) have been introduced to fulfill a pledge to give police personalised stop and search powers to target known knife criminals.

A Royal Commission on criminal justice has been announced but does not appear to have started work and reports suggest it may not publish anything until 2022.

A new national cyber force to counter threats from terrorists, criminals and hostile states has been operating since April.

A pledge to open Parole Board hearings to the public is not yet fulfilled but a consultation has been launched.

A pledge to spend £500m on youth services has not been fulfilled, with charities warning of a black hole in the sector.

Police and crime commissioner have not yet been given expanded roles or greater public accountability but a review has been launched.


The triple “tax lock” pledge not to raise income tax, national insurance (NI) or VAT is beginning to look more shaky as chancellor Rishi Sunak seeks to plug the multibillion pound hole coronavirus has blown in the public finances.

The pensions triple lock promise is also looking under threat due to the size of the deficit, although Sunak promised in October to keep it in place.

A pledge to invest £5bn in gigabit broadband has been quietly dropped, with funding slashed to £1.2bn.

The Treasury has also been forced to deny reports that it plans to drop the digital service tax on internet giants like Facebook and Google, following the manifesto pledge to implement it.

Funding for a promised £3bn national skills fund has been cut to £2.5bn.

More broadly, a broad pledge to cut taxes is likely to be reversed next year, and it remains to be seen whether Sunak will make more progress towards the “ambition” of raising the NI threshold to £12,500, having increased it to £9,500 earlier this year.


The promise of a £29bn roadbuilding fund was slightly scaled back to £27bn by Sunak in the spring Budget.

Meanwhile, northern MPs are still anxious about whether the promise of a “northern powerhouse” rail line between Leeds and Manchester will be done on the cheap, or slowly.

The planned Midlands rail hub is similarly in only the nascent stages of development.

There are also deep concerns that the third leg of HS2 between Birmingham and Lees will be scrapped.

The details of the planned £350m cycling infrastructure fund are still yet to be published.

Work and Pensions

The benefits freeze was cancelled in 2020 as promised.

But the promise to continue the roll-out of universal credit fell by the wayside after it was delayed to 2024.

The Tories pledged to reduce the number of reassessments disabpled people must go through to access welfare, but the government was criticised for extending benefit sanctions to people who fail to assess phone assessments just as the UK was plunged into the second Covid lockdown.

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The manifesto pledge to maintain overseas aid at 0.7% of GDP will be broken, and it’s unclear how long for.

Sam Nadel, head of policy and advocacy at Oxfam GB, said: “It was claimed this was about making difficult choices in light of the economic damage wrought by Covid-19. But it also found an extra £16.5bn over the next four years to spend on military spending – proving when it needs to find the money for its priorities, it can.

“The resumption last summer of arms sales to Saudi Arabia – fuelling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen – makes a mockery of the government’s pledge to be ‘a champion of collective security, the rule of law, human rights...and a rules-based international system’.

“Credit where credit’s due – the government has made good first steps on its commitment to tackle the climate crisis. Lives and livelihoods are already being lost due to climate change, particularly in poorer countries that have done the least to cause it. The UK’s new emissions target, announced last week, is a step in the right direction. As it hosts the G7 and the COP26 climate conference next year, the government needs to live up to its promise for ’Global Britain to be a force for good in the world.”

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The manifesto said: “We will legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online – protecting children from online abuse and harms, protecting the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content, and ensuring there is no safe space for terrorists to hide online.”

Despite repeated promises, the online harms policy remains unclear. The NSPCC wants “a comprehensive duty of care so tech firms make children’s safety a top priority when they design their sites and take steps to protect them from harmful content and abuse”.

But it also says the legislation must give a regulator powers to impose tough financial and criminal sanctions for tech firms that consistently fail children.


Much of what the Conservatives planned to do, including a review of business rates for small firms and enforcing a digital services tax on huge tech firms like Amazon, has been delayed by the pandemic.

As promised, the government has raised research and development tax credits to encourage innovation.

While the government has made some steps towards tackling tax evasion, it has yet to introduce plans to double the maximum sentence for the worst fraud to 14 years in jail.


The government pledged to end the automatic early release of prisoners convicted of serious crimes, and has brought forward legislation to do this.

A review of human rights law could also restrict judges’ ability to block deportations of foreign criminals, but this is still to be determined.

A £2.5bn modernisation programme for jails claims to have delivered on the 10,000 extra prison places promised.

The Tories vowed to boost the role of local police and crime commissioners, but has yet to bring forward any plans.

A review of Parole Board hearings in England has been launched after a promise to allow victims to attend.

A new victims law guaranteeing rights has yet to be delivered on.


The Conservatives vowed to have 80% of UK trade covered by free trade agreements in the three years, “starting with the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan”.

It has signed a deal with Japan but has yet to agree a deal with the US, Australia or New Zealand.

The manifesto also said that the UK will not compromise on environmental law, animal welfare or food standards. Trade secretary Liz Truss has repeatedly been accused of shifting the goalposts on food standards, however.


The Conservatives did increase spending by up to £5,000 per pupil, but were accused by some think tanks of skewing the cash towards schools with more affluent families.

Pledges to “level up” on education have been hit by the pandemic, which has exacerbated inequality.

The A Level and GCSE results exams fiasco has unquestionably damaged the government.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has also failed to ensure all disadvantaged pupils who needed a laptop to study at home during lockdown were able to get one. .


A promise to ban no-fault evictions as part of a better deal for renters has been postponed until there is a “stable” economic environment.

Boris Johnson has pledged 95% mortgages to turn “generation rent into generation buy” but has yet to bring forward firm proposals.

The government pledged to protect and enhance the green belt, but planning reforms by communities secretary to accelerate the building of home face criticism they will do just the opposite.

A pledge to end rough sleeping is skewed by the fact Covid-19 public health funding for a scheme called “everyone in” may mask the problem.

The environment

The government has pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and is making good progress.

Boris Johnson last months set out a ten-point plan to create 250,000 jobs.

He has also banned by the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and plans to ensure power every home by offshore wind within 10 years.


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