I hear it often, people saying: “Oh I’m just not into politics. Politicians are all the same so why should I care what they say?”. Widespread is the belief that politics is utterly irrelevant to people’s lives and that the theatre of Westminster is nothing more than reality TV for ugly people. For the record, I understand from where such feelings stem, but I profoundly disagree with them; politics has always and will always matter. It is the imperfect arena in which progress is forged, the vulnerable are guarded and history changes course. 2020 was the year in which even politics’ greatest detractors could no longer ignore it: this year, politics mattered.
This lookback on the year that we’d all rather forget is not an account of every twist and turn of the Covid-19 crisis. There are people far better connected than I to deliver such an account, and quite frankly I don’t think there is much of an appetite for that. This being said, coronavirus is the issue from where virtually all of 2020’s political roads stem.
The reason the crisis made politics seem like it mattered more than usual was because the freedoms and entitlements of each and every one of us was openly discussed on live television every day. Boris Johnson’s March 23 announcement of a national lockdown clocked up over 27 million viewers, with higher UK TV ratings only achieved by the 1966 FIFA World Cup Final, the Apollo 13 splashdown and a handful of royal events including the funeral of Princess Diana. When politicians are regulating every detail of our daily lives in front of television cameras, it unsurprisingly seems that people want to listen.
The prime minister has waited his whole life to be in this office, and yet a small part of him must regret underestimating the power of events. Whilst this time last year, following a landslide election victory, it looked like he would own the office of PM for perhaps a decade or more, the half-life of his premiership has been slashed by a virus that has exposed the cold hard weaknesses of leaders around the world.
Johnson is a showman. He has no problem with changing his mind on policy to suit the current political climate, something he is adept at gauging. His greatest asset, however, is his ability to make (some) people feel good. His record of electoral success can partly be attributed to voters preferring to hear and see Boris bumbling away rather than the usual dreary grey of Westminster’s more conventional creatures. Herein lies Johnson’s problem: a politician who likes to make people feel good will naturally struggle in a crisis. When confronted with a deadly pandemic, the public generally would rather not hear medical graph trends compared to sombreros or lockdown rules summed up using poorly conceived puns. His determination to do what makes people feel good has proven damaging this year, as indecision and inaction quite literally costs lives when facing Covid-19. The prime minister is politically successful when furthering triumphant causes, and so it seems 2020 was not the year for Boris Johnson, or more accurately, Boris Johnson was not the politician for 2020 (notwithstanding his now famous Twitter prediction of what the year had in store).
Despite approval ratings dipping as the year has gone on, the prime minister did have moments of political light, one of which came at the moment of greatest personal darkness for him. When Johnson was admitted to intensive care on 6 April, the ultimate ‘rally round the flag’ effect was seen. People of all persuasions and none declared their unequivocal good wishes, including Lib Dem leadership contender Layla Moran, who later went on to lose to Ed Davey. Only in the depths of Twitter could you find people wishing for anything other than a speedy recovery for him: briefly, the country seemed united.
Just two days before the PM’s admission to St Thomas’ hospital came a change that undoubtedly shaped 2020, and will continue to affect events for years to come. Keir Starmer, Labour’s Remainer-in-chief, former Director of Public Prosecutions and north London MP was elected leader of the Labour Party.
Starmer is everything Johnson isn’t. Some see him as forensic (up there with ‘unprecedented’ as one of the most overused words of 2020), intelligent and professional, whereas the Conservatives have tried to use his background to brand him elitist and uptight. He uniquely inherited the leadership at a time when it was expected of him to back the government on virtually all policy decisions regarding Covid-19, allowing him to rid the party of the image of ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’ under Jeremy Corbyn.
Within weeks it was clear that Starmer could meet the (relatively reasonable) requirement of thinking on his feet in parliament and responding to points made by the prime minister, rather than the succession of pre-prepared speeches with which Corbyn had approached Prime Ministers Questions. This comes in particularly useful against Johnson, a PM far more willing to dig deep into personal insults than his predecessor.
Unsurprising as it was that Starmer supported the government for the benefit of public health during his early months as leader, the opposition’s policy stance has evolved from patient to passive throughout 2020. Ever conscious of the need to prove himself to both the ethnically diverse, young, Urban Outfitters-shopping university graduates in London as well as newly Tory-fied former coal miners in the north east of England, Keir Starmer has become indecisive. He was ahead of the government on a number of decisions, notably the second England-wide lockdown that arrived in November. Regularly now, however, the Labour front bench simply repeat calls of ‘follow the science’ when pressed on their preference for next steps. If Labour wants even a chance at winning the 2024 general election, Starmer would be wise to maintain his no-nonsense, level-headed bank manager persona, whilst quickly dropping his utter terror for alienating one part of the electorate. General elections are not won on individual policies but broad visions for the country’s future. In 2020, however understandable it might be, Keir Starmer has not communicated Labour’s vision for Britain.
One issue on which Starmer was markedly decisive came in late May. Setting aside Johnson’s initial decision to lock down the country, Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle – or rather the fallout from said trip – was the biggest political story of the year. I will not quickly forget watching Cummings – an unelected advisor of the type he had fought so fiercely to apparently rid the UK of during the EU referendum – being questioned in the Downing Street Rose Garden by the great and the good of the British media. The work of Beth Rigby and colleague Kay Burley – both of whom have now been temporarily dismissed from Sky News for breaking Covid rules – was particularly impressive in exposing the utter absurdity of the whole event. My two takeaways from the scandal were; the actions of those who make political decisions can impact compliance with these decisions; and it is phenomenally embarrassing when politicians defend positions in which they clearly do not believe (see: Grant Shapps).
As accusations of Boris Johnson being the wrong man at the wrong time for the crisis mounted, the perfect man for the time grew stronger across the pond: Joe Biden. I am acutely aware that commentators in their post-election analyses often characterise the winners as political masterminds who didn’t step a toe out of line during the campaign and the losers as predictable fools who had it coming from the outset. Whilst the Biden campaign was far from perfect, I would say that in the context of 2020, it was one of the strongest presidential campaigns for a long time.
No, Joe Biden is not a phenomenal debater. Neither does he hold a particular ‘ideology’ in mind on the back of which he aims to progress America. 2020, however, merely required Biden to be himself in order to beat Donald Trump. The pandemic has – probably only temporarily – set aside the last decade in which facts could be cast away in political debate to construct a sunlit vision of the future. Many American voters, it seems, simply didn’t want a president who thought injecting bleach into Covid patients would cure them; the bar really was that low.
This being said, Biden’s team pulled off a strategy from which progressive causes around the world can learn lessons: they successfully built messages that targeted both the head and the heart. This was not a case of ‘facts versus feelings’ but a perfect blend of low-detail policies delivered by a man clearly instilled with duty and compassion. Biden’s promises would be delivered by a stateman but came from a heart with which many Americans wanted to connect. It is not for me to say whether this is the ‘right’ way to do politics but electorally, the 2020 presidential election is evidence that voters do get tired of political drama and inflated egos. During the pandemic, people kept watching politics because they had no other choice, and reality struck again and again until the mighty fell, as President Trump learned.
There is so much more I could mention; Jeremy Corbyn being suspended from the party he led for being implicated in the anti-Semitism crisis and immediately stating accusations were “dramatically overstated” (humble to the very end, eh?); Kamala Harris becoming the first woman and person of colour to be elected vice president; the racial reckoning that followed the death of George Floyd; JK Rowling being ‘cancelled’; Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid’s brutal interviewing warranting a government boycott of Good Morning Britain; and the government securing the UK-EU future agreement at the last minute (I haven’t found time to read the 500 page document since Christmas Eve so forgive my unwillingness to offer analysis).
If 2020 has taught us just one lesson about politics, it is how completely rudderless even the most seemly in-control leaders can become when swept along by a tsunami of events. Let it not be said that all politicians are the same: if you dare, consider how Jeremy Corbyn and Hillary Clinton might have managed the UK/US responses to coronavirus.
Around the world, we saw from governments compassion, cruelty, neglect and pioneering in equal measure. Consequently, of one thing I am sure: in the mind of every person lucky enough to reside in a democracy, for years to come, will be the question of whether a potential leader can deal with the intellectual, emotional and occasionally soul-destroying pressures of leading a nation in a time of crisis. In a year in which we have all lost so much, I take comfort that whilst empathising more than ever with those who lead us, each and every one of us is better equipped to tell apart the egotists from the those truly dedicated to public service.
Here’s to a peaceful 2021.