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The pandemic

Boris Johnson’s rollercoaster year

It’s fair to say the past year has given us “the best and worst of Boris”, say George Parker and Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. When Covid first hit, the PM was slow to take it seriously. He laughed that he had shaken hands “with everybody” at a hospital with Covid patients and dubbed the effort to secure vital respirators “operation last gasp”. His government then “staggered from one crisis to another” – from PPE shortages and a test-and-trace system that “became a national joke” to Johnson being admitted to intensive care with Covid. Britain “has recorded one of the worst death tolls and biggest recessions” in the world.

Amid the chaos, however, “a crucial decision was taken” to focus on the development and procurement of vaccines. The rollout of those jabs has been exemplary, giving Johnson and the Tories a “vaccine bounce” in the polls. “As ever with Boris, something seems to turn up,” says one longtime ally of the PM. “He’s a lucky general.”

Another striking thing about Boris’s year, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times, is that his core political philosophy has almost completely reversed. The former Telegraph columnist built his reputation on railing against the nanny state’s “lust to interfere” in everything from ski helmets to the shape of bananas. But 12 months ago he introduced “the greatest curtailment of liberties the country has ever known” – and the PM has since transformed from “libertarian buccaneer to lockdown bureaucrat”. That shift hasn’t gone down well with many Tory backbenchers, but it’s enormously popular with the public, particularly the working-class voters “on whom the prime minister believes his electoral success depends”.

Somewhat inevitably, Labour is calling for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic, says Dan Hodges in The Mail on Sunday. Johnson might welcome the opportunity to correct a few choice myths: that he dilly-dallied over the first lockdown, when in fact Sage scientists urged him to delay; that PPE procurement was an exercise in rewarding “cronies”, not a frantic rush to get anything, from anywhere, as soon as humanly possible. But most people already know this – they accept that mistakes were made “in exceptional circumstances, and good conscience”. Sure, others disagree, but an inquiry won’t change many minds. Let’s “save ourselves a lot of time and trouble”, and “get back to living our lives”.

This whole mess is a “significant stain” on Cameron’s reputation, says Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail. His willingness to get into bed with Greensill, a firm plenty in the City could have warned him was a “doomed enterprise”, suggests a woeful “lack of judgement”. The former PM is now being investigated by the lobbying watchdog – a body he set up while in office, having declared that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

Yet Cameron was far from alone in leveraging his contacts over Covid, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. In the rush for PPE procurement, companies with political connections could apply for government contracts via a special back channel – they were “10 times more likely” to secure the deal. Dominic Cummings helped steer a £500,000 contract to a research company run by his pals. The company of one well-connected former investment banker made £17m for supplying masks the NHS wasn’t able to use. Cameron is just a small part of this “financial outrage”.

There’s a broader question here, says Daniel Finkelstein in The Times: what should prime ministers do with themselves once they’ve left office? This never used to be a problem – PMs were typically elected when they were older, and life expectancy was shorter. Their primary task after leaving No 10 was to stay alive. But now the likes of Cameron and Blair leave No 10 with “almost half a life left”. No job or role will ever compare, and you inevitably find yourself in “the company of successful people who are all rich, when you are not”. That’s a recipe for disaster.