Battered by a global pandemic, an emerging economic crisis and a series of policy missteps, the prime minister kicked off the new term acknowledging he and his government had spent the past few months “sailing into the teeth of a gale”.
Gathering his cabinet as MPs returned to Westminster, Boris Johnson admitted he had not always charted the right course after a summer of U-turns.
He said: “I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change, in response to the wind’s change but we have been going steadily in the direction, in the course we set out and we have not been blown off that course.”
But from a health crisis in the summer, into an economic crisis this autumn, the prime minister knows he is still very much in the eye of the storm, and there will be turbulence ahead.
The big test for the autumn is how his government navigates those headwinds, with a parliamentary party more restive after a series of own goals and U-turns – most notable the A-level debacle in August – and a public that is perhaps less willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt as it was during the early storms of this pandemic.
A recent YouGov poll suggested Mr Johnson’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest level since October 2019.
Number 10’s dud steering is unnerving some MPs.
“They need to get a grip,” said one senior Conservative MP.
“The raft of U-turns leaves much to be desired and now we’re not just talking over WhatsApp but we’re back in the tearooms.
“We need to pull our socks up, we can’t get away with this much longer.”
From the health emergency of March to the economic emergency now, the most pressing issue for the government is to get children back to school and adults back to their places of work.
Navigating a re-opening of the economy while managing the disease is going to be the critical test of the autumn and the overarching goal of the Johnson government is to avoid another national lockdown.
“There isn’t a choice between health and the economy. We have to get the health policy right and keep control of the virus, that is what the economy needs,” a government official said.
“Another national lockdown will have a bigger impact on the economy than any measures the government can take.”
The COVID-19 spending boom of the past six months has already blown a hole in the public finances, with debt rising to levels not seen since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
With government debt exceeding £2trn for the first time, the chancellor has made it clear that the extraordinary support for the economy has to be time-limited.
Rishi Sunak has ruled out extending the furlough job retention scheme, due to end on 31 October.
The Treasury has set up the £9bn Corona Retention scheme – a £1,000 bonus paid to companies to bring back furloughed employees until the end of January – and a £2bn kickstarter scheme for young people to try to slightly soften the cliff-edge when the furlough scheme ends.
But the chancellor is bracing for a wave of job losses and one of the “most severe recessions this country has ever seen”.
Against that backdrop, Mr Johnon has little option but to press on with re-opening our schools and our workplaces in the hope that people will return to work and help get the economy going again while local and national governments keep a handle on the virus.
Government figures admit it will be tough and that this is a perilously difficult course to steer.
The hope is that a combination of a more effective test and trace system, coupled with local lockdowns, will mean far more targeted management of the virus than the dramatic nationwide measures required in March.
Ministers and officials are bracing for a second wave of the virus but rather than waiting for a single giant peak, they are trying to contain the smaller ripples and swells in order to prevent an individual giant wave.
Into November and December, it will get ever harder, with the virus harder to suppress and the NHS entering its annual winter crisis period.
Into the “teeth of a gale” in the past few months, the coming period will be equally testing for the prime minister and his team. Those calmer seas he spoke of in cabinet today seem a very long way off.