In Depth

Two years of Boris Johnson: a timeline of the PM’s highs and lows

From Brexit to a global pandemic, Johnson’s premiership has been nothing if not turbulent

Tomorrow will mark two years since Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom.

In that time he has presided over some of the most difficult years in the UK’s history, as the country contended with the end of its membership of the European Union and then a global pandemic.

The Week looks back at the highs and lows of his administration so far. 

24 July 2019: Johnson assumes office

Johnson became prime minister two years ago, promising to defy “the doubters, the doomsters and the gloomsters” by delivering Brexit within 99 days.

After emerging victorious from a run-off with rival Jeremy Hunt, he gave a speech outside Downing Street that was “infused with patriotic pronouncements”, reported The Guardian, declaring that “people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts”.

He declared that after three years of “unfounded self-doubt” it was “time to change the record”.

While Brexit “broke” Theresa May, Johnson’s “unique blend of rhetoric and optimism” was “the perfect tonic for a party that wants to feel good about itself again”, wrote Alan McGuinness for Sky News.

3 September 2019: He loses his majority

Johnson faced a major showdown with his own MPs as they sought to block the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. 

The “opening gambit” in an “acrimonious” debate was the defection of Phillip Lee, a Conservative MP who crossed the floor to join the benches of the Liberal Democrats as the prime minister addressed the Commons, reported Politico. He accused the government of using “political manipulation, bullying and lies” to push through its plans on Brexit.

Johnson later removed the whip from 21 rebel Tories for voting against the government. The rebels included Ken Clarke, an MP since 1970, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.

13 December 2019: A general election victory

After forcing an election over the Commons stalemate on Brexit, Johnson secured a “crushing victory” as voters backed his pledge to “get Brexit done”, reported The Guardian

The Conservatives won 364 of the 650 seats up for grabs, and as the paper noted, it was “the party’s best showing in a parliamentary election since Margaret Thatcher triumphed in 1987”.

Equally “astonishing” were the crushing defeats in the historic Labour heartlands, noted the BBC’s Nick Eardly: “Labour, by contrast, could hardly be in a worse position.”

7 April 2020: Johnson is admitted to intensive care with Covid-19

The PM was admitted to intensive care after contracting Covid-19 – the first major world leader to become ill with the virus – in a “cruel reversal” of fortunes just four months after his election victory high, reported The New York Times

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab deputised throughout Johnson’s illness, which, for a short period of time, “plunged the country back into the uncertainty Britons thought they had left behind” after so recently emerging from the “paralysis and polarisation” of Brexit, said the paper. 

The prime minister revealed he needed “litres and litres” of oxygen during his three-day stay in St Thomas’ intensive care unit in London, admitting it was “50-50 whether they were going to have to put a tube down my windpipe”, in an interview with The Sun on Sunday

13 November 2020: Dominic Cummings resigns

Dominic Cummings “was seen leaving No. 10 a short while ago carrying a box”, reported the BBC, as Johnson’s closest adviser and key ally left his Downing Street role following a dispute that also saw the resignation of communications director, Lee Cain. 

Their departures would “mark the end of the Vote Leave clique’s iron grip on government”, said the Daily Mail, while the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg described his departure as “a political explosion”. Although Cummings would frame his departure as part a long-term master plan, insiders told the BBC’s political editor that he “jumped because otherwise he would be pushed soon”.

Johnson had recently come to see that Cummings’ band of “Brexit Boys” were just “in it for themselves”, the source claimed.

8 December 2020: Vaccination programme begins to roll out

One of the biggest successes for Johnson and his government has been the UK’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, which has been one of the best in the world. Indeed, “Britain soared ahead of every comparable country in the weeks after the vaccines became available”, writes Hugo Gye in the i newspaper – with the one exception being Israel.

But criticism was not far away. “Global leadership is an unaccustomed status for a country with one of the highest rates of excess deaths in western Europe,” wrote the Financial Times. “Multiple missteps”, such as the much-maligned NHS Track and Trace system, means “cynicism” remained over the government’s handling of the pandemic. 

21 December 2020: Christmas is ‘cancelled’

The hopes of a Christmas with loved ones were “dashed” for almost 20 million people after Johnson placed London and large parts of the south-east into “draconian” Tier-4 coronavirus restrictions, said PoliticsHome.

Just days before, Johnson had promised the nation that they would be able to form “bubbles” with two other households over the Christmas period.

“I want to be clear, we don’t want to ban Christmas,” Johnson had told a press conference on 16 December. “And I think that would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many people in this country.”

But a few days later families were told they could not mix.

29 May 2021: Johnson marries fiancee Carrie Symonds

After a turbulent year, Johnson married his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, in a secretly planned Catholic ceremony in Westminister Cathedral. 

The small, Covid-compliant do had only 30 people in attendance, but made Johnson the first prime minister to marry in office for “nearly 200 years”, reports the BBC

But “disgruntled” congregants questioned how “the twice-divorced Prime Minister was able to marry in a Catholic church”, noted The Telegraph.

19 July 2021: England’s ‘Freedom Day’

As England prepared for all social distancing rules to be lifted in the country – dubbed “Freedom Day” by several UK newspapers – both Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were accused of trying to “dodge” self-isolation rules, after being in close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who had tested positive for coronavirus, reports the BBC.

No. 10 initially said they would not isolate as they were now taking part in a pilot scheme that involved daily testing. But Johnson and Sunak were forced to “perform a full reversal little more than two-and-a-half-hours” later, as outrage grew on social media and opposition parties suggested there was “one rule for them and one for the rest of us”, reports Sky News.

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