Last year’s December election gave the Conservatives an 80-seat majority, which has effectively gave them the ability to pass legislation with little to no opposition. Critically, the election served as a massive stamp of approval from the British (or the very least English) electorate to Boris Johnson signalling that he no longer had to appease every person within society and that he could finally implement what he and his government felt was right for the country. Going into the New Year, Johnson marketed his new victory as a new era in British politics and branded himself as a no nonsense leader who would bulldoze his new laws without listening to any pesky detractors. His own campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done” was a reflection of this straightforward no turning back decision-making. Johnson’s government would go into 2020 pushing through the new rules of conduct of Brexit Britain. However, unfortunately for the government, the UK and the rest of the world would be ravaged by the coronavirus, which would force the Tories to temporarily shelf plans for Brexit and instead focus all their efforts on containing the pandemic. During these past eight months, the government has made a number of controversial decisions, which due to either logistics or unpopularity they have had to turn their backs on. While some of the U-turns were ultimately the right things to do, the amount this government has made might instil a lack of confidence within the voter base, and Johnson’s branding of no nonsense policy making might be dwindling with every reversal his government makes.
REOPENING SCHOOLS BEFORE SUMMER HOLIDAYS
Last spring was a tough mountain to climb for the British people and the government. The country was faced with an invisible menace that caused the worst crisis since the Second World War. Thousands around the country contracted the virus and 40,000 people sadly lost their lives to the disease. Even Boris Johnson himself came down with a bad case of COVID-19, showing us that even politicians aren’t immune to the virus. But in true British fashion, the country pulled together in times of crisis and every person took it upon him or herself to protect themselves, their families and their wider community. When in April, Johnson announced that the country was past the peak of the virus’s spread he also stated that his government would publish a steady road to recovery that would help get the UK’s feet back on the ground. Among the steps towards recovery was the controversial decision to reopen primary schools before the summer holidays. Many members of teacher’s unions, parents and even politicians voiced concerns over hastily opening schools again. The government would begin an initial phase of welcoming back year one and year six students, but the government would eventually scrap the plan all together in June. Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, would go on to say that reopening schools in June was an “ambition” rather than the plan. Instead the government opted to reopen schools at the beginning of the new school year in September. This wouldn’t be the last school related issue that the government would change its mind on.
FREE SCHOOL MEALS
Many families around the country cannot afford three square meals a day, and the situation is much more dire when families that have children have to rely on institutions such as food banks to get by every day. Many children from poorer families also heavily rely on free school meals to get the daily nutrition they need. To insult to injury, the pandemic had taken a heavy toll on thousands of workers in the country as many had either been laid off, or furloughed. As a result of these circumstances, many politicians, including Kier Starmer, and campaigners had called on the government to continue the free school meal schemes during the summer to help children of poorer families. The government had been hesitant on making such concessions, but a social media campaign from famous Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford ultimately persuaded the government to reverse the decision and children who rely on school meals to get by would get their daily lunch throughout the summer.
THE TRACK AND TRACE APP
Many governments throughout Asia fought against the pandemic through a track and trace programme that aimed at isolating individuals who either display symptoms of the virus, or come into contact with someone who has displayed symptoms of the virus. The British government decided to build its own track and trace app, which was on trial in the Isle of Wight. The government had stated that the app would be available to download throughout the country in the coming weeks, but various glitches in the app and privacy concerns forced the government postpone the app’s release. Instead of relying on big tech companies to manufacture the app, the government decided to rely on the services of the NHSX department, which had only been founded in July of last year, and had no prior experience in making a large track and trace app. As such, the government decided to reverse its decision of not relying on big tech companies, and instead went to Google and Apple to build the app. Speaking of big tech companies.
HUAWEI AND 5G
Boris Johnson’s ascension to 10 Downing Street last year seemed to single a rekindling of the “special relationship” between the UK and the US, as both Johnson and Trump campaigned on populist platforms such as lowering immigration rates. There seemed to be an initial honeymoon period during the first few months of Johnson’s premiership, but one issue caused a big strain between both parties, the UK’s contract with Chinese communications company Huawei to help build the country’s 5G network. As the Trump administration was and still is in the midst of a trade war with Beijing, it had hoped that one of, if not its closest, allies to scrap its agreement with one of China’s biggest tech companies. Washington had argued that Huawei was one of the Chinese Communist Party’s largest supporters and that Beijing would use technology produced by Huawei to spy on people living in the West. To appease both sides, Johnson decided to compromise by allowing the Chinese telecoms firm to sell a limited amount of equipment for parts of the U.K.'s 5G network, a move that Washington was not thrilled about. In July, the Johnson government changed its mind and decided to ban Huawei’s 5G gear and kits in the country. It is speculated that three main factors led to this U-turn, pressure from Washington, pressure from anti-Beijing Tory backbenchers called the “Chinese Research Group” and Beijing’s crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong, which used to be a British colony twenty-three years ago.
The latest in government U-turns once again involved the education sector. Because of the pandemic, school students could not sit through GCSE exams this year. As a result, the government had decided to calculate final results through a statistical model that took into account the historical performance of the school. That meant that students that were in schools that historically produced students with low GCSE marks, were at a disadvantage. Moreover, private schools, which tend to perform better than state schools, were also at an advantage. The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland decided to opt out of this method, but Westminster stuck to it. Once again, pressure from politicians and even cabinet members persuaded Johnson’s government to scrap the model and instead rely on teachers’ assessed grades to use as final GCSE results.
While it is commendable that the Johnson government is willing to take into account the concerns of peers, pressure groups and the people when making decisions, the number U-turns taken in such a small time window might make some of his supporters weary. Nevertheless, when Johnson finally delivers Brexit at the end of the year, he will conformably hold on to those who had wholeheartedly gave him his support to get Brexit done.