Boris Johnson faces winter of discontent for national crises

Boris Johnson faces winter of discontent for national crises
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Few world leaders have had such an active six months as Boris Johnson, who recently marked his first anniversary of becoming prime minister of Britain. In late March, as the country was in the grips of the first wave of the pandemic, Johnson fell sick to the novel coronavirus. At first, he and his officials strenuously claimed that his symptoms were mild and would swiftly disappear. Ten days later, in early April, he became the first world leader to be admitted to the intensive care unit of Saint Thomas Hospital in London, where he was in need of “liters and liters” of oxygen.

While the government denied rumors, some emanating from Russia, that the prime minister was on a ventilator, plans were made to announce his death, revealing how serious his illness was. But Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, would announce a birth of their son, his sixth child and his first with her. Four months later, some of the media is consumed with images of Johnson working out with his new fitness trainer while he tries to lose weight as he establishes a strategy to tackle obesity for Britain, a country where a quarter of the population suffers from obesity.

Despite the personal ups and downs of the relatively new prime minister, his political fortunes have taken a nosedive as the rest of 2020 presents challenges for his leadership and his government. The pandemic shows no signs of abating and, while several vaccines are in development, the coming winter is likely to pose massive problems to the National Health Service as the government tries to reopen schools for the fall.


Britain has recorded over 330,000 coronavirus cases, while over 41,000 people have died from the pandemic. Britain also has the dubious honor of ranking first with the highest death rate ahead of the United States as well as the rest of the Group of Seven countries. Many have blamed that initial approach by Johnson over the pandemic and a delay in lockdowns when the coronavirus first reached Europe during late winter.

While other countries in Europe, like Italy and Norway, used lockdowns by the middle of March, Britain waited almost two more weeks before it then introduced mandated restrictions. By late July, Johnson admitted that the response could have been handled differently. An official inquiry has been promised into the management of the pandemic, which is bound to bring a measure of embarrassment for Johnson and his government.

While the coronavirus dominates the daily state of affairs and drives much of the news coverage in Britain and elsewhere, the Brexit question has not disappeared. Britain officially left the European Union in January, and such transition period expires at the end of December. The United Kingdom still enjoys all the trade benefits it had with the European Union before exiting. But starting in January, if no trade deal is concluded, Britain will be locked out of the European Union economy of over 440 million people.

While negotiations have continued irregularly, no clear progress has been made. Many in Brussels remain suspicious of the true motives for Johnson, with some European Union officials believing the prime minister prefers to let the clock run out and, with that, cut off all ties with the European Union without the trade deal, part of which might not sit well with some of those staunch supporters of the hard Brexit in his Conservative Party.

His government enjoys a majority in Parliament which will give him some political cover as the House of Commons returns from its summer recess and questions inevitably mount over his response to the coronavirus and attitude on future trade relations with the European Union. But as Britain edges closer to this December deadline, many in the Conservative Party still expect Johnson to deliver on his promise to negotiate the trade deal with Brussels. The downward spiral of the economy could showcase that closer ties with the European Union might not be a bad thing.

Any prevarications by Johnson could result in challenges and bring to an end his short tenure as prime minister. The coronavirus and the decisions that his government has been forced to take on public health reveals the myth of Johnson as some kind of a political genius. The Brexit trade talks will also test the other false narrative that, despite the blonde bombshell bluster, he has the master plan of the future of Britain outside the largest free trade area in the world. Indeed, Johnson has been exposed as a man without a detailed plan as he navigates Britain into a winter of discontent dominated by a global pandemic and the toxic Brexit problem.

Michael Geary is a global fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He is also an associate professor of European history for Norwegian University of Science and Technology.