ANDREW NEIL says the PM can defy critics predicting downfall

Can Boris usher in a new dawn in Downing Street? He ended the year assailed from all sides and with ratings plummeting. But ANDREW NEIL says the PM can still turn it around and defy critics predicting his downfall

All of us are probably glad to see the back of 2021. It was the year in which the great vaccine rollout was meant to see off the pandemic — only for us to finish December still in the grip of the virus’s grim maw, with lockdowns, restrictions and statistics on infections, hospitalisations and deaths still the miserable backdrop to everyday life.

I’m also pretty sure few will be happier to leave 2021 behind than Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wie in 12 short months has seen his poll ratings tank as his government became increasingly mired in sleaze, kroonisme, hypocrisy and incompetence — all entirely self-inflicted by Johnson and those closest to him.

The man who led the Tories to a landslide victory over the Corbyn Arbeidersparty only two years ago starts the new year a much-diminished figure who has just presided over the Toriesworst by-election defeat of modern times in the previously rock-solid Conservative seat of North Shropshire.

No wonder even loyal Tory activists are talking ever louder that 2022 might be time for a change of leader.

The bad news is that things are likely to get worse in 2022 — not just for Johnson but for the rest of us, too — before they get better.

The Prime Minister stumbles into the new year seriously wounded, his future in growing doubt. But he's not yet toast

The Prime Minister stumbles into the new year seriously wounded, his future in growing doubt. But he’s not yet toast

The good news is that if we can face the vicissitudes of the first half of the year with resilience and fortitude, then there are, I believe, brighter prospects waiting for us in the second half of 2022. Taking the next 12 months in the round, I find reasons for optimism.

The same goes for the Prime Minister. He stumbles into the new year seriously wounded, his future in growing doubt. But he’s not yet toast.

His salvation is entirely within his own hands, if he can transform his lacklustre Downing Street operation with fresh blood and purpose — and provide the country with the leadership and direction these difficult times require. Do all that and Johnson could finish 2022 in better shape than he’s starting it.

Let’s deal with the tough stuff first. The rapid spread of Covid’s Omicron variant hasn’t just disrupted our daily lives as we dared to contemplate a return to normality. It has undermined our economic recovery from the pandemic.

Instead of ending 2021 with a bang, we ended it with a whimper. The British economy was meant to return to its pre-pandemic size before 2021 was out. That won’t happen now until some time in the first half of the new year.

His salvation is entirely within his own hands, if he can transform his lacklustre Downing Street operation with fresh blood and purpose — and provide the country with the leadership and direction these difficult times require. Do all that and Johnson could finish 2022 in better shape than he's starting it (voorraad beeld)

His salvation is entirely within his own hands, if he can transform his lacklustre Downing Street operation with fresh blood and purpose — and provide the country with the leadership and direction these difficult times require. Do all that and Johnson could finish 2022 in better shape than he’s starting it (voorraad beeld)

But even as economic growth falters, inflation is on the rise, making fools of those central bankers in London, Frankfurt and Washington DC who were so confident rising prices would be a temporary phenomenon.

UK inflation will peak at over 6 per cent some time before the summer and fall only slowly thereafter. A tight labour market means these price rises will be baked into the system with pay rises to match.

But even if you get a 5 per cent pay rise this year — generous by the standards of the past decade or so — your earnings in real terms will still be falling or, op sy beste, stagnating.

And that’s before a number of government policies coming down the pike hit your standard of living even harder.

From April national insurance contributions (NICs) will rise and income tax thresholds will be frozen. Millions of workers on low and modest wages will see their take home pay dwindle — just as their household energy bills are set to soar.

But even as economic growth falters, inflation is on the rise, making fools of those central bankers in London, Frankfurt and Washington DC who were so confident rising prices would be a temporary phenomenon

But even as economic growth falters, inflation is on the rise, making fools of those central bankers in London, Frankfurt and Washington DC who were so confident rising prices would be a temporary phenomenon

Europa, including the UK, is now paying the price for a decade or more of energy policies whose stupidity beggars belief. Germany is closing its nuclear power stations, even though that makes it more dependent on Russian gas (and its own very dirty coal).

Britain fails to build adequate gas storage facilities, even though gas still generates more than 40 per cent of our electricity. France has second thoughts about its extensive nuclear power, even though it has meant security of supply and low CO2 emissions.

All across Europe virtue- signalling politicians kowtowing to the green lobby boast of their refusal to allow any fracking for natural gas in their countries, while forgetting to mention this means pouring billions of dollars into the treasure chests of the Kremlin and Middle East despots, on whose gas we now depend. And we’re now ever so grateful to the Americans for currently shipping us billions of cubic metres of gas we need — and which the U.S. has to spare because it has fracked.

All this is coming home to roost in 2022.

European gas prices are 15 times higher than America’s — and this is before the Kremlin has really turned the screw.

European gas prices are 15 times higher than America's — and this is before the Kremlin has really turned the screw (lêer beeld)

European gas prices are 15 times higher than America’s — and this is before the Kremlin has really turned the screw (lêer beeld)

Some time in April (a fateful month indeed for living standards) the cap on UK electricity prices will have to be lifted to reflect the inescapable realities and costs of global energy markets. This is likely to add £600 a year to the average household energy bill, which will rise to more than £2,000 a year.

Those on average earnings and below have to spend a much bigger chunk of their income on energy bills than the better off. This is an extra tax on folks of modest means at a time when their real incomes are already being eroded.

It does not bode well for the PM. The squeeze on living standards will take political centre stage in the first half of 2022 and it’s not an issue on which Johnson can talk with much confidence or conviction. It requires empathy and seriousness of purpose: not Johnsonian hallmarks.

It means Labour’s current modest lead in the polls is likely to be sustained — perhaps even grow — in the first half of the year. It means potentially dire prospects for the Tories in the early May local elections.

It means Labour's current modest lead in the polls is likely to be sustained — perhaps even grow — in the first half of the year. It means potentially dire prospects for the Tories in the early May local elections

It means Labour’s current modest lead in the polls is likely to be sustained — perhaps even grow — in the first half of the year. It means potentially dire prospects for the Tories in the early May local elections

If the Tories reach early summer consistently behind in the polls, Johnson’s personal popularity in the dirt, having suffered a drubbing in the local elections and unable to meet universal concerns about the squeeze in living standards, then the chances of a leadership challenge are strong and the possibility of a new prime minister by the autumn at least 50:50.

There’s another factor that could undermine Johnson. As Britain’s political and media elite obsess about Downing Street wallpaper and wine-and-cheese parties, we start 2022 met 175,000 Russian troops mustered on the Ukrainian border, China talking about dress rehearsals for an invasion of Taiwan and Western intelligence thinking Iran is closer than ever to building a nuclear bomb.

In geopolitical terms, 2022 is going to be the year of living dangerously, at a time when the West is bereft of leadership to deal with the growing confidence and expansionism of the world’s major authoritarian leaders.

What has always been our best hope in times of global unrest, Amerika, is now led by the doddery President Joe Biden, 79, whose grasp of international affairs is tenuous at best and whose vice-president is even more incompetent and unpopular than him.

What has always been our best hope in times of global unrest, Amerika, is now led by the doddery President Joe Biden, 79, whose grasp of international affairs is tenuous at best and whose vice-president is even more incompetent and unpopular than him

What has always been our best hope in times of global unrest, Amerika, is now led by the doddery President Joe Biden, 79, whose grasp of international affairs is tenuous at best and whose vice-president is even more incompetent and unpopular than him

The new German government has no credentials for providing global leadership. President Macron is consumed with domestic matters which will determine his re-election chances in France’s presidential elections in April.

And then there’s Johnson. Nobody looks to him for leadership on the global stage. He was a pretty useless foreign secretary, leaving no discernible mark. He’s had little to say about global issues as prime minister, bar some grandstanding at the climate change jamboree in Glasgow last November.

The danger for Johnson is not only that the Tory faithful will come to regard him as the Great Loser rather than the Great Winner, it is that they conclude he is not the appropriate leader for the troubling tenor of these serious times.

If that becomes their settled view then it is indeed likely to be curtains for his premiership.

En tog, and yet, and yet. Let us lift our heads from these dark thoughts and consider some finer possibilities. Perhaps we don’t do this enough. Ever since the Brexit referendum the prevailing narrative among much of the political and media classes has been how a generally useless Britain is going to hell in a hand basket.

The new German government has no credentials for providing global leadership. President Macron is consumed with domestic matters which will determine his re-election chances in France's presidential elections in April

The new German government has no credentials for providing global leadership. President Macron is consumed with domestic matters which will determine his re-election chances in France’s presidential elections in April

So let’s remind ourselves that Goldman Sachs, HSBC, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — none exactly graduates of the Nigel Farage School of Brexit — all think the British economy in 2022 will be the fastest growing of the G7 group of the world’s major economies — for the second year in a row.

They forecast around 5 per cent growth for us versus 3.5 per cent in America, 4 per cent in Germany and 4.4 per cent in France and Italy.

Despite the squeeze on living standards, they predict the growth on the basis that UK households have paid down a lot of debt and accumulated a lot in savings, some of which they will now spend because rising house prices are making them feel a bit flush.

It’s also likely, as labour becomes scarcer and more expensive, that we could see something in 2022 of a business investment boom, in everything from advanced medical technology to the latest digital innovations. Foreign investors are already showing faith in Britain. UK firms have the capital to invest. All they need is the foresight to do so.

In 2021, American TV and film companies spent more than £5 billion on productions in the UK. This year the American streaming giants like Netflix and Disney are planning to spend an incredible $115 billion on films and TV shows — and outside of North America, Britain is by far their biggest production hub (lêer beeld)

In 2021, American TV and film companies spent more than £5 billion on productions in the UK. This year the American streaming giants like Netflix and Disney are planning to spend an incredible $115 billion on films and TV shows — and outside of North America, Britain is by far their biggest production hub (lêer beeld)

As with last year, Britain is on course for another bonanza of high-tech investment from overseas — more than France and Germany put together. In everything from life sciences to artificial intelligence, Britain’s expertise and resource base is of a global standard. We are already a creative superpower and that is set to continue.

In 2021, American TV and film companies spent more than £5 billion on productions in the UK. This year the American streaming giants like Netflix and Disney are planning to spend an incredible $115 billion on films and TV shows — and outside of North America, Britain is by far their biggest production hub.

So there are clearly political prizes to be won if Johnson can navigate a tricky first half of the year. And vaccines could once again come to his aid.

It was the successful rollout of vaccines in early 2021 that kept him high in the polls through the summer and meant voters were prepared to overlook his early mishandling of the pandemic. Now the successful rollout of the booster jabs could mark the start of his political renaissance.

It was the successful rollout of vaccines in early 2021 that kept him high in the polls through the summer and meant voters were prepared to overlook his early mishandling of the pandemic (lêer beeld)

It was the successful rollout of vaccines in early 2021 that kept him high in the polls through the summer and meant voters were prepared to overlook his early mishandling of the pandemic (lêer beeld)

Johnson has taken a gamble — in the teeth of much scientific advice to the contrary — to place so much faith in booster jabs and to eschew further draconian lockdowns, the default policy of Scotland, Wales and much of continental Europe.

Sover, as a new year dawns, the gamble looks to be paying off. Though much of our medical establishment has been in denial about it, the Omicron variant, though virulent in transmission, does appear to be far less lethal when it comes to hospitalisations, intensive care cases and deaths, as South African clinicians have been telling us since they discovered it.

If Johnson holds his nerve and is vindicated by events then Omicron will herald a new stage in the pandemic — not the end of Covid (we’ll probably never get rid of it entirely) but an ability to cope with it without shutting down the economy or suffering huge loss of life. If Britain is in the vanguard of this new stage, that will further enhance our global economic prospects in 2022.

It could also mark a swing in Johnson’s prospects, from a leader in real trouble to one with a fighting chance still to be in Downing Street by this time next year.

If Johnson holds his nerve and is vindicated by events then Omicron will herald a new stage in the pandemic — not the end of Covid (we'll probably never get rid of it entirely) but an ability to cope with it without shutting down the economy or suffering huge loss of life

If Johnson holds his nerve and is vindicated by events then Omicron will herald a new stage in the pandemic — not the end of Covid (we’ll probably never get rid of it entirely) but an ability to cope with it without shutting down the economy or suffering huge loss of life

But it will have to be a very different Johnson from the one we’ve seen these past two years — a more focused, serious leader who has replaced a sense of bumbling ineptitude and self-regard with quiet confidence, purpose and direction.

And surrounded by a Downing Street operation of quality and experience instead of the juvenile Keystone Cops currently in charge.

And there’s the rub. Can Johnson force himself to undergo this metamorphosis? He’s not a stupid man and he does want his place in the history books. But he’s solipsistic enough to think he knows better than any of us how to behave — and hasn’t he done fine just by ‘being Boris’? Why change now?

I would argue against that — because the old Boris schtick doesn’t work any more. People are tired of it and they want something more adult. If they can’t get it from him then they will seek elsewhere. Can Johnson change in a way the times so badly demand? I confess to having my doubts. But that is entirely a matter for him.

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