The Week’s biggest stories of 2019
From Brexit and Boris to royals and rebellion
The UK’s Christmas festivities were on hold until 12 December this year as the country geared up for a rare winter election.
But with the campaigning done and dusted following a resounding victory for the Tories, it’s time to finally look forward to the New Year - and back at the biggest stories of 2019…
Brexit has dominated the political agenda since the EU referendum vote in 2016, and the past year has been no exception. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was voted down by Parliament three times at the start of the year, forcing her to delay the 29 March deadline and eventually resign as prime minister. Her successor Boris Johnson proved equally incapable of meeting the next deadline of 31 October, despite proroguing Parliament and insisting that he would rather “die in a ditch” than further delay quitting the bloc. Following defections, resignations, expulsions and rebellions, MPs were finally put to the test in the December election, where the Conservatives cleaned up with an 80-seat majority.
The ascent of Boris
Johnson started the year as a backbench MP, having resigned as foreign secretary in 2018 over May’s Brexit plans, but ends 2019 as the Tory PM with the biggest majority at Westminster since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 election victory. His path to victory began when he was elected to replace May in the summer, moving into Downing Street with his girlfriend Carrie Symonds and bringing along Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings. Johnson’s resounding election win means he now has a sure mandate to “Get Brexit Done”.
The fall of Isis
The Syrian Democratic Forces announced in March that Islamic State (Isis) had lost its final stronghold in Syria, bringing an end to the so-called caliphate declared five years ago. In October, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the terrorist group, detonated a suicide belt to avoid capture by US forces. But while both were significant moments in the fight against Isis, experts are divided over the extent to which the militants have been weakened. Countries including the UK have also wrestled with ethical and practical questions following requests by jihadists such as Shamima Begum to return home. Isis continues to claim responsibility for attacks on foreign soil such as the Sri Lanka Easter bombings and November’s London Bridge attack.
The Epstein scandal
Billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein was arrested in New York City in July on sex-trafficking charges dating back to the early 2000s. He died in prison a month later, in an apparent suicide, but that didn’t prevent further allegations from being made against him. A previous plea deal agreed in 2008 has also come under renewed scrutiny, amid considerable press interest in Epstein’s former friendships with high-profile figures including Donald Trump and Prince Andrew. The latter took part in a now infamous BBC interview in a bid to set the record straight about their relationship.
US public opinion has been divided by the impeachment inquiry into whether President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 to investigate former vice-president and Democrat Joe Biden. With the Republicans set to take control of the process once the articles of impeachment arrive in the Senate, the president is very unlikely to be removed from office. “But that doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t matter,” says The Washington Post. “As the 2016 election showed us, even a slight shift in the electorate that could result from the impeachment proceedings could change who our next president is.”
Several media outlets have described 2019 as the “year of the protester”. Millions of people have taken part in demonstrations in countries worldwide to demand greater democracy and an end to corruption, among other grievances. The push for governments to do more to tackle climate change has dominated headlines, with Greta Thunberg becoming the face of environmental youth activism. Hong Kong’s anti-government demonstrations were among the largest ever seen, but there has also been unrest in dozens of countries including Iraq, India, Chile and Lebanon.
The decline of the high street
Britain’s leading 500 high streets saw a net decline of 1,234 chain stores in the first half of the year - the highest since the data was first compiled in 2010. Major chains including Mothercare and Debenhams fell into administration, while others were forced to seek legal agreements with landlords. Hundreds of Thomas Cook travel agent shops also closed when the 178-year-old holiday firm entered compulsory liquidation in September, leaving tens of thousands of holidaymakers stranded abroad.
Nato at 70
Nato leaders gathered in London earlier this month with the intention of marking the 70th anniversary and achievements of the military alliance. But as The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall remarks, the summit instead resembled a “particularly neurotic episode of EastEnders with the leading actors driven to breaking point by family feuds, spiteful remarks and personal betrayals”. The anniversary raised questions about whether Nato is still fit for purpose and equipped to tackle problems ranging from the threat posed by Russia to the migration crisis.
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Bushfires, heatwaves and storms have ravaged nations across the globe over the past year. Temperature records were smashed in the Northern Hemisphere, while Hurricane Dorian - the most powerful hurricane to hit the Bahamas since records began - caused widespread devastation and left dozens dead. Fires in California left a trail of destruction visible from space, while firefighters in Australia’s southeastern state of New South Wales are still battling to control more than 100 blazes.
The year got off to a bad start for the Royal Family, with Prince Philip’s car accident in Norfolk in January. In May, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle welcomed their first child - Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor - after moving to Windsor amid rumours of a rift with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. There were royal tours to southern Africa, Pakistan and Cuba. Then Prince Andrew gave his disastrous BBC interview about Jeffrey Epstein and subsequently stepped back from royal duties, while the Queen was forced to carefully traverse the political fallout of her prime minister suspending Parliament. All in all, a year of ups and downs.
For the unreported stories from 2019, check out our podcast The Week Unwrapped.