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Aug 29

Boris Johnson faces winter of discontent for national crises – The Hill

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, marking how serious his illness was. But Johnson and his partner, Carrie Symonds, would announce the birth of their son, his sixth child and his first with her. Four months later, the press have been consumed with images of Johnson working out with his new fitness trainer as he attempts to lose weight while launching a strategy to tackle obesity in Britain, where 28 percent 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 moving along, the coming winter is likely to pose massive problems for the National Health Service as the government tries to reopen schools.

Britain has recorded more than 330,000 coronavirus cases and over 41,000 people have died from the pandemic. Britain has the dubious honor of ranking first with the highest death rate ahead of the United States and the Group of Seven countries. Many have blamed the initial hands off approach by Johnson for tackling the pandemic and the delay in lockdowns when the coronavirus first reached Europe in late winter.

While many countries in Europe, like Italy and Norway, went into lockdowns before the middle of March, Britain waited almost two more weeks before it introduced mandated restrictions. In 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 cause a certain degree of embarrassment for both Johnson and his government, with many questions left unanswered.

While t coronavirus has dominated the daily state of affairs and has convulsed much of the news coverage in Britain and elsewhere, the Brexit question has not disappeared. Britain officially left the European Union in January, and its 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 next year, 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 measurable degree of progress has been made. Many in Brussels remain deeply suspicious of the real motives of Johnson, with some senior European Union officials believing that the prime minister would prefer to let the clock run out and, with that, cut off all ties with the European Union without a trade deal, parts of which might not sit well with some of the staunch Brexit supporters in his Conservative Party.

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

Any prevarication by Johnson could result in a challenge to his leadership 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 has exposed the myth of Johnson as some kind of a political genius. The Brexit trade talks will also test the false narrative that, despite the blond bombshell bluster, he has a master plan for the future of Britain outside the largest free trade area in the world. Johnson has been exposed as a man without a detailed plan as he navigates Britain into a winter of discontent dominated by a raging pandemic and the toxic issue of Brexit.

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.

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Boris Johnson faces winter of discontent for national crises - The Hill

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