Boris Johnson is marking his first anniversary as prime minister, in a year that is surely a contender for the most extraordinary of his own life, and certainly one of the most profound in the history of the country he leads.
The UK has lived through two of the most momentous events in our modern history – Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. Neither are finished business. Both will define the legacy of this prime minister.
As for Mr Johnson, he has packed more into his political and personal life in one year than most leaders would in a lifetime. He won the party leadership and entered Number 10, tore up the May cabinet, prorogued parliament, secured a Brexit deal, expelled 21 of his own colleagues, asked for a Brexit extension, called an election, won a Conservative majority not seen since the Thatcher years, and delivered Brexit on 31 January – the next chapter of that relationship and the trade deal still a work in progress.
And that was just his political life. In his personal life, he moved into Downing Street with his now fiancée Carrie Symonds and divorced his second wife of 27 years Marina Wheeler. He became a father for the sixth time at the age of 56 with the arrival of his baby son Wilfred, and fought for his life in intensive care after contracting COVID-19.
When it comes to his relationship with the public, Mr Johnson has taken his party from lows of 29% in opinion polls to the 40% plus at the start of the general election, before tipping over the 50% mark in public support in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis.
But during the course of this pandemic his personal polling and that of his party have begun to fall. He might be poised to tie the knot with his partner Ms Symonds, but when it comes to the British public, the prime minister’s honeymoon period is over.
Undeterred, on Friday Mr Johnson used his one-year anniversary to repeat the views of his manifesto, telling the British people his ambition remains the same: to level up the country.
“I will not let the virus hold this country back,” he said. “We must harness the unity of purpose and resolve we have shown as a country in fighting coronavirus – and use it to build back better.”
But speak to senior figures in government and the relentless optimism of Mr Johnson is met with a heavy dose of realism. The fears over a second wave and mass unemployment are palpable.
With 9.4 million people on furlough and the economy contracting as much in two months as it grew in 17 years, it’s not a question of whether there will be a recession but rather how deep and prolonged it might be. And that depends too on what’s happening with the virus into the winter: Mr Johnson might be in the driving seat in Number 10, but his agenda will ultimately be determined not by what he wants to do, but how the virus behaves.
When it comes to the economy, the government is bracing itself for unemployment to reach four million or more. How to manage long-term unemployment is one of the top priorities on the government’s agenda. How to get the public finances in order is another – spending cuts or tax rises are inevitable.
Another deep and mounting concern within cabinet is the growing demand for Scottish independence. The polling shows a sustained majority in Scotland who want independence after the bitter Brexit wars, Boris Johnson’s election as prime minister, and the splits between Westminster and Holyrood over coronavirus take hold. Mr Johnson might be the prime minister who has delivered Brexit but will he also go down in history as the one who lost the union?
In his final address to Conservative MPs at the 1922 backbench meeting this week the prime minister told his party it had to campaign for the union as he lamented how awful the break-up of the union would be. But Brexit has inevitably strained the relationship between two nations – Scotland and England – which wanted to go different ways when it came to our relationship with the EU. And the potential of a no-deal exit on 31 December only exacerbates those tensions.
Those negotiations with Brussels are another critical item in the prime minister’s in-tray when he returns in the autumn. Politically, the Number 10 operation knows it cannot extend the transition beyond 31 December. Economically, it knows the importance of securing a trade deal with the UK’s biggest export market against the backdrop of a recession.
Mr Johnson is a prime minister elected to deliver Brexit on a landslide victory that gave him the authority to re-cast the country as he saw fit. Seven months in, he is battling to save the union, prevent the deepest recession seen for decades, and manage a pandemic on a scale not seen in our country for 100 years.
Mr Johnson believed his legacy would be delivering Brexit, but he now faces an even more challenging task. We are living through a pandemic that will shape our lives for years to come – and his premiership too.