Two years of Boris Johnson: An A-Z of his time as prime minister so far

From Brexit to vaccinations, the PM’s time in power so far recapped

Today (24 July) marks two years since Boris Johnson became prime minister, after winning the Conservative leadership race.

Much has happened since, not least a global pandemic, so here’s a rundown of Johnson’s time in office.

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Alexander

Two years in power: an A-Z of Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street (Photo: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)

Known to the world as Boris, Johnson’s full name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

While he has taken on the Boris moniker as something of a brand, or character, he is reportedly still known to his family as Alexander, or Al. While Jennifer Acruri, the woman Johnson had an affair with while he was mayor of London, reportedly lovingly referred to him as “Alexander the Great”.

Brexit

While it seemed for a long time that Brexit would be the defining issue of Johnson’s premiership, it now seems likely that it will instead be Covid. Johnson’s fateful decision to back ‘Leave’ in the 2016 referendum famously came after he wrote two columns, one favouring ‘Remain’ and the other the side of the debate he would soon come to embody.

A timeline marking the key moments of Johnson's tenure so far (Photo: Mark Hall/NationalWorld)

He may not have become prime minister until just over three years after the referendum result, but this outcome was more or less guaranteed the moment it was announced.

Johnson, the rebellious MP who had put his considerable political heft behind the project to score an unlikely win would later pull off another surprising result, this time as PM, in managing to secure an exit from the EU and a trade deal.

Covid

When future historians write their lengthy tomes on Britain and the Johnson years, the only word likely to feature more than “Brexit”, or maybe even “Boris”, will be Covid.

The disease which almost killed him has dominated the majority of his two years in Downing Street. Johnson has had the unenviable task of coordinating the UK’s response to the first major pandemic in generations.

There have been failures and there have been successes. Those historians may, with the benefit of hindsight and retrospect, have a clearer idea of Johnson’s handling of the crisis than we do now, though it seems unlikely they will vindicate him.

Dominic Cummings

The PM’s former chief adviser is, depending on who you listen to, either a veritable genius who masterminded both the Vote Leave campaign and Boris Johnson’s general election campaign (two of the most emphatic political victories in modern history), or he is a glorified spin-doctor with a talent for myth-making who had no more sway in Downing Street than the average Spad.

Whichever is true, and even Cummings seems to think that the truth lies somewhere between the two, his journey from right hand man to sniping from the sidelines is testament to the tumultuous nature of Johnson’s Downing Street.

While his most recent interventions have won him few admirers, not least his admission that he and others plotted to remove Johnson in the days after getting him elected, he offers rare insight into how Johnson operates, and is unlikely to cease causing his old boss problems any time soon.

Expulsion

Easily forgotten now due to all that has happened since, but when estimating Johnson’s ruthless streak it is well worth remembering the way he summarily expelled more than 20 very senior Conservative MPs after they voted against the government on Brexit.Among others, then father of the house Ken Clarke, former chancellor Philip Hammond and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Johnson’s personal hero Winston Churchill, were all unceremoniously booted from the parliamentary Conservative party after they worked cross-party to vote against the government and frustrate the Brexit process.

Johnson, often thought of as affable and cheery, demonstrated a disciplinarian streak early in his premiership which may have foundered a sense of loyalty - even if only driven by fear - that has until now prevented serious rebellion against him from his own MPs.

Free school meals

Johnson is yet to suffer a defeat at the hands of the opposition since winning the 2019 general election, and his 80-seat majority means he is unlikely to anytime soon.

However, outside of parliament the prime minister has been beaten on a couple of occasions, namely by England and Manchester United ace Marcus Rashford.

Having grown up in a struggling household near Manchester, Rashford picked a fight with the government - and won - over a decision not to offer free school meals to kids during the school holidays in the middle of a pandemic.

General election

Johnson became prime minister after winning the Conservative leadership election, but in many ways his rule didn’t truly begin until he called and won the general election.

The campaign fought by Johnson and his then chief adviser Dominic Cummings would have won few fair play awards, marred as it was by stunts like the Conservative’s changing their official Twitter account to ‘FactCheckUK’ or the PMs ducking continual ducking of scrutiny.

But, it was clearly an effective one, and in politics its the result that counts. Johnson confirmed his place in Downing Street by securing the largest Conservative majority in decades. As a result, he wields a level of executive power that many of his predecessors could only have dreamt of.

Herd immunity

In the early days of the pandemic, as the government came under heavy criticism for its failure to respond rapidly to the emerging crises, reports began to circulate that Johnson was pursuing a strategy of ‘herd immunity’.

This meant they intended not to try and prevent the spread of the virus through lockdowns or other restrictive measure, but instead to let it pass through the population, giving people a chance to develop natural immunity.

On a theoretical level, the logic seems fairly sound. In practice, the plan would have guaranteed a sky-high death rate, not least due to the massive pressure the NHS would have faced.

As we now know, the government did go with lockdowns, albeit slightly later than might have been ideal, and Johnson has always denied that herd immunity was the initial plan. However, Dominic Cummings maintains that it was the plan until it became clear just how many people would die.

Income

Almost as soon as Johnson took up residence in Downing Street, stories began to circulate that there was a particular aspect of the job he was unhappy with; the remuneration.

As a high-profile backbench MP and government minister Johnson had been able to supplement his already-significant income with a lucrative Telegraph column and speaking gigs. But as PM, his side-hustle options are severely limited.

Between a messy - and costly - divorce, an ever-growing family and reportedly expensive tastes, there have been many reports that Johnson doesn’t want to remain PM for too long, because he can’t afford to.

John Lewis

Johnson’s time in office has not been without scandal. The PM hasn’t been implicated personally in all of them, but he was dead-centre of a recent row involving renovations to his Downing Street apartment.

Questions were raised about how the funds were raised to fund the costly renovations, amid speculation that the costs had been covered by a wealthy Tory donor.

A recent report found that, while Johnson didn’t break the ministerial code, he did “act unwisely” and was failed by his officials.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the story were Johnson’s reported comments about why the refurb was so drastically needed. Apparently the previous inhabitat, Theresa May had created a “John Lewis furniture nightmare” which needed to be upgraded.

Levelling up

While Johnson hasn’t had much time to focus on a domestic policy agenda since taking office, from what we can gather his political project will be built around ‘levelling up’.

Even after a 4000+ word speech recently seeking to add some detail to the policy, its not entirely clear what levelling up will mean in practice.Johnson seems to recognise that the UK is over-centralised and has vast regional inequalities, not just economical but also in health outcomes.

But for all the talk of increased funding in certain places and general policies like increasing the number of police, its not entirely clear how he intends to address these issues through “levelling up”.

Mustique

Sometimes we all need a holiday. Clearly the PM is no different, as he enjoyed a winter getaway in the luxury island resort of Mustique over Christmas and New Year last year.

The trip and how it was funded was initially shrouded in some mystery. It was claimed that Johnson was staying at the villa of a Conservative donor, although this was later denied.

Johnson declared the holiday, but a recent report found that, though he didn’t do anything wrong in accepting the expensive holiday as a gift, his explanation around how it was funded - which only came out months later during the inquiry - should have been more forthcoming.

Northern Ireland protocol

It may have helped him secure a historic general election victory, but was Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready” Brexit deal all it was cracked up to be?

The main stumbling block which caused his predecessor, Theresa May, so many problems was the Northern Ireland protocol.

Despite featuring little in the referendum campaign in England, regulatory issues in Northern Ireland - which is both part of the UK and shares a land-border with an EU member state - were always going to be an issue.

Rather than develop a genuine solution, Johnson chose to kick the can down the road with a sea-border, leading to rising tensions in Northern Ireland which were, sadly, all too predictable.

OBON (One Britain, One Nation)

Johnson has sought to paint himself as the voice of the nation, and a proud voice at that. A clear patriot, Johnson reportedly sees himself as the man to reinstill a sense of national pride which he feels has been lost for generations.

At its best, Johnson’s patriotism seems to involve materially improving the country and the lives of people in it, which should be lauded.

But at its best, critics say his brand of patriotism is closer to nationalism, relying on empty gestures and flag-waving in place of actual policy. Those critics will no doubt have felt somewhat vindicated when they heard the government-endorsed OBON song.

With lyrics such as “We are Britain and we have one dream, to unite all people in one great team” and “Strong Britain, great nation” it did little to dissuade those who poke fun at Johnson’s brand of cartoonish patriotism, though in fairness, the campaign wasn’t created by the government, just backed by them.

PMQs

Each prime minister that has had to go through the weekly ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions has had their own way of dealing with it.

For Johnson, the approach seems to be one of evasion. Rarely since PMQs returned after an absence during the pandemic has Johnson given a straight answer to one of Keir Starmer’s questions.

The strategy might also be summed up as “the best defense is a good offense”. Instead of answering Starmer’s carefully selected inquiries, the PM has on many occasions fired back questions of his own. Indeed, speaker Lindsay Hoyle has had to reprimand him in around one third of all PMQs this year for doing so, often reminding him that “is is Prime Minister’s Questions, not opposition questions”.

Queen

For a devout Royalist, Johnson has managed to drag the monarch into controversies of his making on several occasions.

His bid to prorogue parliament put her in an awkward position, to say the least, though he did reportedly apologise to her after the Supreme Court rejected his attempt.

All indications are that the Queen, who has seen a total of fourteen prime ministers during her reign, doesn’t mind Johnson. Although who knows what she made of recent reports that Johnson wanted to carry on his meetings with the nonagenarian monarch during the early days of the pandemic.

Red wall

In order to build the seemingly-unassailable majority he now enjoys, Johnson combined the traditional Conservative voter base, particularly in the Home Counties and in rural areas, with voters in the post-industrial north of England.

In what is now known as ‘the red wall’, many voters who would have routinely voted for Labour a couple of decades ago opted instead for Boris Johnson, no doubt at least partly in response to his campaign slogan/promise, to ‘Get Brexit Done’.

It could be said that the shift was in reality far less seismic than it is sometimes presented, much more the product of long-term decline for Labour than a single moment of decisive change. But clearly, Johnson’s idiosyncratic style helped voters put a tick in the Tory box without feeling too much like they were voting for a Conservative.

Social care

In terms of policy, there may prove to be no bigger challenge for Johnson to tackle while in office than dealing with the UK’s ailing social care system.

A solution is much-needed, on this almost everyone across the political spectrum agrees. But that may be just about all they do agree on, meaning the route to reform will be a politically challenging one.

Recent reports suggest the PM is considering a National Insurance hike to cover the costs, which most people believe would be an unfair tax-level to pull, given it would disproportionately impact younger earners.

Truth (and lies)

Johnson’s relationship with the truth is a mixed one, to say the least. Sacked twice during his career for lying - first as a journalist, then as a politician - the accusation that he is somewhat averse to the truth has stuck with Johnson throughout his time as PM.

Just before the general election, when a member of the Question Time crowd asked Johnson how important it is for someone in a position of power to always tell the truth, the rest of the audience burst into laughter.

However, Dawn Butler MP was certainly not laughing this week when she spoke in the House of Commons to accuse Johnson of lying to parliament on several occasions. In keeping with parliamentary protocol, because she didn’t retract the allegation she was ejected from the house.

Union

It would take something truly extraordinary to supercede both the pandemic and Brexit as the defining points of Johnson’s time in power.

But were he to end up presiding over the breakup of the United Kingdom, this would undoubtedly be his legacy.

Scottish independence has never felt more likely than now, and Johnson’s abrasive style of governance, coupled with his support for Brexit mean he has few supporters north of the border.

There are reports that Johnson believes the best response to increased talk of independence in Scotland is to ignore it. This could be because he believes that a fire without oxygen soon goes out, or because he simply doesn’t care that much.

Vaccine

Even Johnson’s biggest supporters might admit that his response to the pandemic in the early days was lacking. On paper, the UK has so far fared among the worst in the world in terms of total deaths and economic impact.

That said, the pandemic isn’t over and while the UK struggled initially, there’s no doubt that the success of the vaccine rollout has allowed the country to turn the tide against the virus at a pace matched by very few other nations.

Understandably, Johnson is keen to highlight this sizable success at every possible opportunity, but when we look back and take stock of this period of our history, will this success be enough to outweigh Johnson’s numerous failures in dealing with the pandemic?

Wilfred

As if he didn’t already have enough to think about between running a country, dealing with a pandemic, getting divorced and then promptly engaged, Johnson had another child during his Downing Street tenure.

Baby Wilfred was named for Johnson’s grandfather. He is the PM’s first child with Carrie Symonds and is thought to be his sixth child in total.