Yesterday marked one year since Boris Johnson became leader of the Conservative party and prime minister of the United Kingdom. In that time, he has won a huge electoral majority, prorogued parliament, governed the UK through a global pandemic and ‘got Brexit done’. It’s fair to say the past year has been a whirlwind of political upheaval, and the last two weeks have been no different. Stalled Brexit negotiations, international disputes and coronavirus critics have all made this a tumultuous time for the government.
As pressure mounts both at home and abroad, what does this all mean for Boris Johnson? And how will he navigate these challenges against the backdrop of COVID-19? Here are four key things you need to know about another hectic fortnight in the world of politics.
On Thursday morning, Boris Johnson made his way to the Orkney town of Stromness, in his first visit to Scotland since his electoral victory in December. The visit reflects growing concerns amongst ministers that support for Scottish independence is on the rise, following a recent series of opinion polls. During his visit, the prime minister hoped to demonstrate the might of the union, stating that the UK government’s response to the pandemic had helped to protect more than 900,000 jobs in Scotland. However, his remarks that an independent Scotland would not have had the financial strength to stop coronavirus causing an economic disaster fell short of achieving the sense of togetherness he had hoped for.
Instead, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, accused Boris Johnson of using COVID-19 as a political weapon, describing the visit as evidence that he is in a panic about the surge in support for independence. It seems that far from bringing unity to the British Isles, Boris’s fleeting visit only served to highlight his lack of appearances in Scotland to date, and the ongoing challenge he will face to protect the union and cover the cracks of Sturgeon’s independence movement.
Concerns over the longevity of the union are further exacerbated by reports that UK-EU negotiations have once again stalled to an impasse. The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, outlined yesterday that there are still considerable gaps in reaching a trade and security agreement with the EU. In his statement, Frost said that although he is confident a deal can be reached by September, Britain must also be prepared for leaving without an agreement. The comments follow an announcement by Michel Barnier, who has said a deal appears unlikely due to fishing rights and regulatory standards remaining key issues of contention.
As a country that had a remain majority, this update will not be welcome news for many in Scotland, and we can expect to see Nicola Sturgeon becoming increasingly vocal on the Brexit bedlam as we head towards the 31 October deal deadline. Moreover, it seems that the prime minister and the chancellor will have to make some difficult choices in the autumn budget if they intend to try to win over the Scots using the Treasury’s chequebook. Johnson will have to tread carefully over the next few months if he is to cut the oxygen supply to the Scottish independence flame.
From Russia with love
Earlier this week, another set of international tensions were brought to the surface, as the Intelligence and Security Committee published its long-awaited report into Russian interference in the UK. Although the report didn’t confirm whether the Kremlin had attempted to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum or 2014 Scottish independence vote, the report did suggest the government and intelligence agencies have turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption by not investigating themselves. The damning report went further, stating that Russian influence in the UK is now normalised and the government has failed to confront the spread of Russian money and influence over a long period of time.
During a grilling at prime minister’s questions, Sir Keir Starmer challenged Boris Johnson on why he caused a ten month delay in the report’s publication, and accused him of taking his eye off the ball with regards to Russian activity. Johnson however was resolute that Russia remains a top national security priority for the government, and went on to suggest the report didn’t contain a smoking gun but instead was being utilised by ‘Islingtonian remainers’ to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit.
Russia is not the only country to have caused problems for the government this week. On Monday, the UK suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong immediately and indefinitely in light of China’s increasing control over the region. The decision followed the imposition of the new security law in Hong Kong by Beijing that officials have called a serious violation of the country’s international obligations. Home secretary Priti Patel has also since announced details of a special Hong Kong visa for overseas nationals, calling the BNO visa changes a proportionate response to China’s rising influence over the city.
Heightened tensions with China have been developing for a number of weeks, with leaked drone footage of the treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang province causing global outrage. In addition, the government’s u-turn on its Huawei decision is sure to have soured relations, with the UK government stating that it would be banning domestic mobile providers from buying new Huawei 5G equipment after the end of this year and will force them to remove all of Huawei’s 5G kit from their networks by 2027.
While the UK looks to secure its position on the world stage post-Brexit, these early tensions will be sure to have perturbed frontbenchers who are looking to obtain important trade deals with allies across the globe. Time will only tell how the government plans to manage international relations ahead of Britain’s new identity as a non-EU state, and how it intends to level up the UK amidst the current economic crisis.
An unsettling settlement
Finally, as the government faces problems from all angles, Labour should be able to kick back and enjoy its chance to offer rigorous and empowered opposition scrutiny, right? Not quite. This week the Labour party has had some troubles of its own, as the party’s decision to pay a six-figure libel settlement to ex-staffers who claimed the party was failing to deal with antisemitism has plunged the party back into civil war.
Starmer’s decision to broker the settlement has been criticised by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said the decision ‘risks giving credibility to misleading and inaccurate allegations about action taken to tackle antisemitism in the Labour party in recent years’. In an open statement condemning the settlement, Corbyn has said it was a political decision and that the party had previously received legal advice that it would win the libel case brought by the seven ex-staffers and the journalist who made the BBC Panorama programme on which they appeared.
The statement has in turn caused more unrest, with discussions of further legal action against Corbyn and further attempts from Starmer to distance himself from his predecessor. Far from settling the issues at hand, the payout has instead drawn lines in the party between the Corbynite left and those wanting a clean break from the Labour leadership that lost them the 2019 election. As Starmer attempts to steady the ship, it seems Labour is yet to rid itself of its headlines on antisemitism.
As we look ahead to the coming weeks, it seems there will be some light relief for MPs as the Lords will join the Commons for summer recess. However, there will be no rest for Boris Johnson, as rumours in Westminster suggest that he will be unveiling his new plan to tackle obesity early next week. Expected to be announced on Monday, the PM is rumoured to be presenting a set of restrictive marketing regimes for junk food in an attempt to improve the health of the nation.
Furthermore, if COVID-19 and new health initiatives weren’t enough to keep the PM busy, the EU-UK negotiations continue next week with two days of informal talks, followed by a formal round of negotiations in mid-August. Whilst uncertainty around Brexit and the pandemic lies ahead, what I’m sure we can all agreed on is that we hope the next 12 months of Boris Johnson’s premiership aren’t as tumultuous as the last!