As the pandemic slows, Britain will continue to succeed

Boris Johnson may be in trouble, but the Britain he leads is not, argues Azeem Ibrahim


Boris Johnson may be in trouble, but the Britain he leads is not. Britain is now moving to a new stage in its pandemic. The Omicron wave has washed in and is swishing out, with the NHS still intact. The country is once again one of the freest from public health restrictions in the developed world.

In America and in Europe, British politics has been a spectacle of light amusement. In comparison to the US, where discourse often includes talk of a second civil war, Britain’s political scuffles can seem, to some, a little quaint. Yet others view Mr Johnson as analogous to Donald Trump and delight at his serial disasters.

Many in Europe are unhappy at Mr Johnson regarding Brexit – both for his campaigning it, and taking the country through it. In government, his ministry has made progress, with negotiations proceeding between the EU and Britain which slowly inch towards reasonable settlements over the Northern Ireland Protocol and areas of mutual interest like trade. 

The New York Times has published a withering opinion piece suggesting that ‘partygate’ revealed who Mr Johnson “really is” and it’s not unflattering. Similarly, The Atlantic recently published a chin-stroking report suggesting Britain might be coming apart at the seams. Is it, the paper wonders, suffering from the sort of existential collapse reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Sicily before the unification of Italy? The Atlantic considers Mr Johnson’s thumping parliamentary majority crumbling to shreds a point of comparison.

But this is where all the analogies cease functioning. For just as Mr Johnson’s and Mr Trump’s visual appearances are only superficially similar, their political careers are also poles apart. Needless to say, Britain and the polyglot Austro-Hungarian empire bear almost no resemblance that survives scrutiny. Nor does Britain, a union in its own right, look like the decaying older areas of Italy soon to be swept aside by Garibaldi.

Mr Johnson himself has also presided over some notable achievements, which observers from the other side of the Atlantic and across the Channel are apt to forget. His government was able to break the parliamentary and diplomatic deadlock which had held back Britain’s exit from the European Union for almost five years. 

In the midst of a pandemic, Britain’s government had failures, but they were not permanent. Britain was the first country to approve a covid-19 vaccine and the first to administer a jab to the general population. It has mounted one of the fastest and broadest vaccination campaigns of any country, which so far has meant that as the Omicron variant of covid sweeps the world, the NHS has avoided increasing numbers of critically ill patients crowding hospitals across the globe, including in the US and much of Europe. Over 80 per cent of British adults have had two shots of a covid-19 vaccine.

In national security terms, Johnson has presided over the Integrated Review, a significant piece of grand-strategic thinking in recent British history, and concluded the Aukus agreement with the US and Australia, giving Britain a more significant voice and role in the continued security of the Indo-Pacific. Britain carried off the Cop26 summit, in which more commitments were made to decrease worldwide emissions even in a time of increased political, economic and environmental nationalism worldwide. 

And Mr Johnson himself is a survivor. After a political career of two decades in and out of the limelight (not to mention in and out of favour), he won the largest majority since the general election of 2001.

The year has not begun well for Boris Johnson. But as his career demonstrates, he is a political survivor, capable of achievement even when accompanied by colourful stories. It would be unwise to count him, or Britain, out.

British leadership and participation is being valued more and more across the continent. British anti-tank weaponry is the most visible support any friendly nation has offered Ukraine’s leadership putting the rest of Europe to shame. In this moment of moments, Europe needs Britain, and the two must find a way to continue to work together.

26th January 2022