UK in 2021: Johnson in freefall and annus horribilis for the royals

Few would bet on the PM remaining in office another year or the royal family making up

Amid questions over parties at Downing Street and the refurbishment of his private flat, Boris Johnson has suffered an astonishing reversal of fortune. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Boris Johnson goes into the new year with his premiership in real jeopardy for the first time since he won an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives in 2019. Half of his backbenchers rebelled against coronavirus restrictions in December, his close cabinet ally and Brexit minister David Frost resigned a week before Christmas, and the vultures are circling above 10 Downing Street.

It has been a remarkable reversal of fortune for a prime minister who was viewed as unassailable for much of 2021, with some commentators predicting that he would be in office for a decade. Amid questions over lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street and the refurbishment of Johnson’s private flat, few at Westminster would now bet much on him remaining in office for another year.

The year began with Britain's full departure from the European Union after parliament endorsed the trade and co-operation agreement (TCA) that Frost negotiated. Johnson said he hoped the deal would provide a resolution of the "old, tired, vexed question" of Britain's relations with Europe but celebrations were muted on account of the resurgent coronavirus epidemic.

With the National Health Service (NHS) under pressure from the surge in infections, Johnson ordered a national lockdown until mid-February, closing schools and allowing people to leave their homes only for a few specified reasons. At the same time, Britain began rolling out the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to the oldest and most vulnerable groups in a campaign that left other European countries behind as the EU was slower to approve vaccines and suffered from supply shortages.


The May elections saw Nicola Sturgeon's <a class="search" href='javascript:window.parent.actionEventData({$contentId:"7.1213540", $action:"view", $target:"work"})' polopoly:contentid="7.1213540" polopoly:searchtag="tag_organisation">Scottish National Party</a> win a fourth term in office at Holyrood with 64 seats, one short of an overall majority

By the end of February, Johnson had outlined a plan to reopen shops, hair salons, gyms and outdoor hospitality in England in mid-April and to lift all coronavirus restrictions by June 21st, a date that later slipped to July 19th. The success of the vaccine rollout helped the Conservatives to make big gains in local elections in May and to capture the parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, which had been held by Labour for half a century.

Fresh questions

Labour's losses raised fresh questions about the leadership of Keir Starmer, who had struggled to make an impact throughout the pandemic as he alienated former supporters of Jeremy Corbyn on the left without expanding his party's appeal among other voters.

“We have changed as a party but we’ve not made a strong enough case to the country, we’ve lost that connection, that trust, and I intend to rebuild that and do whatever is necessary to rebuild that trust,” Starmer said after the loss of Hartlepool.

The Labour leader made a bad situation worse by attempting to scapegoat deputy leader Angela Rayner, sacking her from her role as party chair and campaign co-ordinator. A chaotic shadow cabinet reshuffle saw Rayner emerge with more jobs than she had before, with Starmer unable to make the more ambitious changes he had planned.

The May elections saw Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party win a fourth term in office at Holyrood with 64 seats, one short of an overall majority. The Greens won eight seats, giving the new parliament its biggest-ever majority in favour of leaving the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon's victory followed a bruising few months after her role in addressing accusations of sexual misconduct against her predecessor Alex Salmond was the subject of a parliamentary inquiry and an independent investigation. After two remarkable committee hearings that saw Salmond testify for six hours and Sturgeon for nine, the first minister was exonerated. Salmond's new party, Alba, failed to win any seats in May's elections.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spill the beans in a television interview with Oprah Winfrey. Photograph: Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP

Royal family

Much of the British public was preoccupied during the spring by goings-on within the royal family after Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, gave an explosive interview to Oprah Winfrey during which they claimed that one of his relatives expressed concerns before their son was born about how dark his skin would be. The couple said they left Britain because of racism and accused the palace of failing to defend Meghan from racially inspired attacks on her.

Harry said that after he met Meghan, he realised that he was “trapped” within the royal family and that he felt relieved to be beyond the reach of the institution.

“My father and brother. They’re both trapped,” he said. “I feel really let down, because he’s [Harry’s father] been through something similar. He knows what pain feels like, and Archie’s his grandson. I will always love him, but there’s a lot of hurt that’s happened. And I will continue to make it one of my priorities to try and heal that relationship.”

Meghan, who was pregnant with their second child, stayed away from Prince Philip's funeral in April, which saw Queen Elizabeth sit alone at the end of a row of pews in St George's Chapel in Windsor as she observed coronavirus restrictions.

The queen's own health came into focus in October when she abruptly cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland and it emerged that the 95-year-old monarch had spent a night in hospital that was not initially revealed by palace staff. She later cancelled a trip to Glasgow for the Cop26 climate conference, failed to appear at the Cenotaph ceremony on Remembrance Sunday, and said she would remain at Windsor Castle for Christmas.

Throughout the year, Johnson and Frost played a game of brinksmanship with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, unilaterally extending grace periods for some checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea and threatening repeatedly to suspend the agreement by triggering article 16. Frost upped the ante in July with a command paper that called for sweeping changes, including the removal of almost all checks on goods from Great Britain and an end to the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the protocol.

A bizarre speech before business leaders that included a riff on Peppa Pig World reinforced Johnson's image as a leader out of his depth

This combative strategy appeared to pay off in October when EU negotiator Maros Sefcovic offered a comprehensive package of measures to address the problems the protocol presented for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland. Sefcovic claimed that the changes would eliminate 80 per cent of checks and procedures and guarantee access to all NHS-approved medicines.

Frost rejected the proposals as inadequate before they were presented. He doubled down on his demand for the ECJ to be removed from the protocol and ramped up his threat to invoke article 16. His move backfired because it galvanised EU member states into support for an overwhelming response if Britain triggered article 16, including the termination of the trade agreement.

By mid-December, Frost had effectively dropped his demand on the ECJ, saying he would consider an “interim” agreement on the issues the EU was willing to negotiate, leaving the governance of the protocol to a separate negotiation. He and Johnson continued to assert that triggering article 16 remained an option but nobody in Westminster or Brussels believed they would risk the economic damage it would bring.

Coronavirus restrictions

When Frost resigned, to be replaced in the lead Brexit role by foreign secretary Liz Truss, it was not because of a disagreement with Johnson over their negotiating strategy with the EU but over the latest coronavirus restrictions. Frost described the measures, which were modest by the standards of most European countries, as "coercive" and said he could not remain in a cabinet that endorsed them.

Frost’s resignation worsened Johnson’s already precarious position as Conservative backbenchers speculated openly about a challenge to his leadership. The 100-strong rebellion against the requirement to show Covid-19 certification for entry to nightclubs drew support from all wings of a parliamentary party that was losing patience with a prime minister who had seemed unassailable weeks earlier.

Johnson's troubles began in early November when he whipped his MPs to vote against the suspension of former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson from the House of Commons for breaking rules on lobbying. Johnson tried to use the controversy over Paterson to scrap the entire system that enforces parliamentary standards, only to perform a U-turn that saw Paterson resign his seat.

Peppa Pig

A bizarre speech before business leaders that included a riff on Peppa Pig World reinforced Johnson's image as a leader out of his depth. His mishandling of revelations about parties at Downing Street during lockdown deepened the crisis surrounding his leadership, leading to an investigation by Sue Grey, a former ethics enforcer who strikes fear into hearts across Whitehall.

Torn between his party’s libertarian wing and the government’s scientific advice on how to deal with the spread of the Omicron variant, Johnson ended the year held hostage by his ministers and MPs, who no longer saw him as a winner but as an electoral liability.