Scandal-Ridden PM, Brexit Woes, Royal Bombshells & COVID Quagmire: Was 2021 UK's Annus Horribilis?
Against the backdrop of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, UK headlines alternated between scandal-plagued Prime Minster Boris Johnson dodging accusations of “sleaze”, verbal UK-EU post-Brexit sparring and “truth bombing” from the polarising duo of royals - Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
As this tumultuous year for the United Kingdom – and the whole world – has come to an end, here are some of the biggest stories that made the headlines in 2021.
Throughout the year, London remained at odds with Brussels over post-Brexit trade rules, with the stalemate over the Northern Ireland (NI) protocol a particularly contentious snag.
The protocol was designed to avoid checks on goods crossing the politically sensitive border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union. However, as a compromise measure to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, an effective Irish Sea border had been created. The UK government has slammed the post-Brexit checks on goods as having a disruptive effect on trade, and is seeking an overhaul of the NI protocol.
As tensions flared, both sides threatened to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol, which can be used in case of “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” or the “diversion of trade”.
20 November 2021, 15:01 GMT
Brussels had sought to trigger Article 16 to establish border controls on coronavirus vaccine doses moving into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland in January 2021 over shortages of the jabs in the EU.
Boris Johnson had also been prompted to move closer to triggering Article 16 amid anger over the trade barrier created in the Irish Sea.
In mid-October, Brussels agreed to a reduction in customs checks and paperwork between the UK and Northern Ireland, yet baulked at scrapping the European Court of Justice's oversight role concerning the NI Protocol.
© REUTERS / CLODAGH KILCOYNEA sign is seen with a message against the Brexit border checks in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol near the harbour in Larne, Northern Ireland. February 12, 2021
A sign is seen with a message against the Brexit border checks in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol near the harbour in Larne, Northern Ireland. February 12, 2021
As the core architect of the divorce strategy, Brexit Minister David Frost, resigned in late December over disillusionment with the “direction” of Boris Johnson’s government, Britain’s foreign secretary Liz Truss is taking charge. This comes amid reports that the UK stance on the role of the EU's highest court as ultimate arbiter of trade rules in Northern Ireland may be softening.
UK-France Fishing Row
As part of post-Brexit fallout, the fishing rights issue has soured relations with EU-member France.
Accusing the UK of having issued 50% fewer licenses to French boats than supposed to in line with concluded agreements, Paris had erupted in a frenzy of threats aimed at London.
© Sputnik / Sputnik FranceFrench fishermen blocking port access in Calais over a fishing row between France and the UK.
French fishermen blocking port access in Calais over a fishing row between France and the UK.
© Sputnik / Sputnik France
Vowing to block its ports and carry out additional security checks on British vessels, it even went as far as to fine two British boats and detain a UK scallop dredger, "Cornelis Gert Jan". Warnings of cutting energy supplies to Jersey had also been made.
The UK and Channel Islands governments finally agreed to issue 83 more operating licenses before an EU deadline of 10 December.
The UK and France have also been dragged into a diplomatic spat as they blamed one another for the surging Channel migrant crisis.
The number of illegals crossing the English Channel in small boats has risen almost one hundred-fold over the past three years, according to Home Office data, with measures implemented so far failing to rise to the challenge.
Academics: There Are Ways to Solve Channel Crisis But France & EU Unwilling to Help Post-Brexit UK
29 November 2021, 13:55 GMT
The row between the two countries erupted with fresh force after 27 people drowned when their small boat capsized in the English Channel on 25 November.
PM Boris Johnson tweeted a copy of his letter to French counterpart Emmanuel Macron calling for joint patrols on French beaches and for migrants to be returned to France.
An irate Macron slammed the move as not a serious way to negotiate, while Home Secretary Priti Patel had her invitation withdrawn from a ministerial meeting in Calais to discuss the crisis.
Boris Johnson, who won a landslide election victory in December 2019, throughout the second part of 2021 faced a litany of scandals and missteps, which his opponents claimed show he is “unfit” to be prime minister.
A lobbying row erupted after text messages were revealed to have been sent between British billionaire entrepreneur Sir James Dyson and Boris Johnson in March the previous year. At the time, when coronavirus hit the UK, there was a rush to stock up on the much-needed ventilators. In text messages seen by the BBC, the prime minister promised to "fix" tax changes the entrepreneur wanted to ensure that Dyson workers returning to the UK to help with the pandemic response were not penalised by the tax system.
When confronted, Johnson said any PM would have done the same in the circumstances.
The abrupt pullout of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan and growing fears for the safety of vulnerable Afghans left behind had also generated fallout for Johnson’s government.
As row erupted between then-UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace over the country’s exit and an “intelligence failure” regarding the likelihood of a Taliban takeover, the Prime Minister got drawn into the scandal surrounding animal rescuer Pen Farthing.
After claiming he did not intervene to order the airlift of over 170 dogs and cats from the Nowzad charity shelter run by the ex-Royal Marine from Afghanistan, an letter from an aide had undermined this statement.
Coming at a time when thousands of Afghans were clamouring to get on flights fearing retribution from Taliban it did little to boost the PM’s credibility. Downing Street denied that Johnson or purported animal-loving wife Carrie had intervened on Farthing’s behalf.
Allegations of wrongdoing continued to plague the Prime Minister. He was accused by the Labour Party of “taking the British public for fools” amid allegations he misled his ministerial standards tsar over the funding of the refurbishment of his Downing Street flat.
Johnson’s Conservative Party was fined £17,800 by the Electoral Commission after it found more than £50,000 had not been properly declared. Investigators discovered that funds received by the party from Tory donor Lord Brownlow, via a private company, to cover the costs of redecorating the PM’s official residence amounted to a donation. As such, it should have been declared in the proper way.
Downing Street dismissed accusation of the PM “lying”, and said he was unaware Lord Brownlow was financing the blind trust funding the refurbishment.
A torrent of criticism rained upon Boris Johnson amid Tory “sleaze” allegations in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal. Buffeted by censure, in late November the PM produced a disastrous speech at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Annual Conference. Johnson had raised eyebrows as he waxed lyrical about a recent trip to Peppa Pig World and lost his place in his notes several times, prompting a dozen backbenchers to reportedly write to Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, voicing their discontent with Johnson’s recent performances.
'Love It': Johnson Tells UK Business Leaders Peppa Pig World is 'Very Much My Kind of Place' - Video
22 November 2021, 12:27 GMT
But the pace of criticism only picked up, as the heat was turned on Boris Johnson amid claims of illicit lockdown-breaching Christmas parties held at No 10 last year during strict COVID-19 restrictions. The latter were triggered when a video emerged showing his staff laughing and joking about a Downing Street party during the 2020 lockdown.
The loss of a parliamentary seat in a by-election defeat to the Liberal Democrats in the Conservative stronghold of North Shropshire on 16 December was seen as proof that the PM’s mistakes were catching up with him.
A leadership challenge was reportedly “on the cards” unless the Prime Minister altered his “handling of matters,” according to veteran Tory backbenchers.
14 December 2021, 16:54 GMT
As 99 Conservative legislators on 15 December voted against so-called “vaccine passports” in line with Johnson’s “Plan B” to tackle the coronavirus pandemic in the greatest rebellion of his tenure, the PM’s popularity plummeted. An Opinium poll for the Observer showed in mid-December that 57% of voters think Johnson should resign, with his personal ratings falling to -35%,
Labour surged to a nine-point lead over the Tories, registering 41%, while the Tories were at 32%, their lowest score since 2019.
Brought Down by a Snog
The scandals surrounding the prime minister did not stop there: in June, Matt Hancock, a married father of three kids, lost his job as Health Secretary after he was caught on CCTV camera intimately embracing his married aide Gina Coladangelo at his office in breach of COVID-19 social distancing rules in place at the time.
Hancock split with his wife after the affair became known to the public.
The Mother of All Scandals: Cummings Drops Bombshells
While Boris Johnson seems to be drowning in scandals, it was his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, forced to quit Downing Street in November 2020 after losing a power struggle, who has been ‘napalming’ the UK government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the year.
The ex-Brexit strategy guru insisted that "tens of thousands of people died, who didn't need to die," as the Prime Minister had initially dismissed the emerging coronavirus as "the new swine flu" and "just a scare story".
The one-time adviser did not mince words, calling Boris Johnson incompetent and claiming it was “crackers” for him to be in the leadership position in the first place.
© AFP 2022 / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVASBritain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and his special advisor Dominic Cummings leave from the rear of Downing Street in central London on September 3, 2019, before heading to the Houses of Parliament
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and his special advisor Dominic Cummings leave from the rear of Downing Street in central London on September 3, 2019, before heading to the Houses of Parliament
Towards the end of the year, as the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus surfaced and started to gain ground, Cummings slammed the government’s strategy on the COVID-19 vaccination booster rollout. He warned in another instalment of his Twitter rants that the Prime Minister “needs scrapping ASAP before kills even more 1000s”.
UK COVID-Tackling Strategy
As COVID-19 cases ebbed and surged, the year 2021 witnessed the UK government attempt different approaches to stem the spread of the respiratory virus. Not all the measures went down well with the public, however. Protests marred New Year's Day when a large crowd of protesters gathered in London to demonstrate against restrictions and businesses being closed down, chanting "Covid is a hoax". On 6 January, the UK entered its third lockdown.
On 22 February, data on the UK's coronavirus vaccine rollout suggested it was having a “spectacular” impact on curbing the spread of the disease, (UK's jab rollout, which started on 8 December 2020, was among the fastest in the world) a new four-step plan to ease England's lockdown was unveiled by Boris Johnson.
From 8 March all schools were to open with outdoor after-school sports and activities allowed. From 29 March, outdoor gatherings of either six people or two households were to be allowed. All legal limits on social contact were set to be lifted by 21 June, with shops, hairdressers, gyms and outdoor hospitality set to reopen on 12 April.
Nevertheless as spring arrived, up to 30,000 people gathered in central London in March, carrying anti-lockdown placards with slogans such as "Stop Destroying Our Kids’ Lives".
On 19 July, the day that most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted by the government, anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests took place in Westminster, with protesters lobbing bottles at police and 11 people arrested.
London, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham were all engulfed by protests on the weekend of July 24–25 protests against coronavirus jabs and proposed “health” passports.
The whole of the United Kingdom saw life return closer to normal between March and July this year, as the government’s “roadmap” reopened the economy and lifted restrictions in four steps. The main line of defence was now vaccination rather than lockdown.
The process was marred by the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant. Nevertheless, as of 9 September, more than 92 million doses of the vaccine had been given across the country.
As the government’s Plan A, a comprehensive approach designed to steer the country through autumn and winter 2021-22, began to falter, on 14 December, the UK Parliament voted in favour of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Plan B to deal with the new, reportedly more transmittable Omicron strain of the disease.
14 December 2021, 11:36 GMT
Despite a rebellion of 99 Tory MPs opposing the PM’s key measure for dealing with COVID-19 infections this winter – the mandatory introduction of health passes, mask mandate and work from home – the plans were passed by MPs by 369 to 126 thanks to Labour support.
The measures triggered protests against vaccination passports on Parliament Square, in London, on 18 December. Footage from the protest posted on social media showed shoving between police and protesters, who marched through the capital, with the hashtag #londonprotest trending on Twitter.
The demonstrations came as UK Health Minister Sajid Javid said that the Omicron strain of the coronavirus now accounted for about 60% of all COVID-19 infections in London.
MoD Papers at UK Bus Stop
On 23 June, the HMS Defender, a Daring-class Royal Navy destroyer, illegally entered Russian waters off Crimea and proceeded to sail through, prompting Russian warships and aircraft to fire warning shots in its vicinity to force it to leave. Moscow had blasted the incident as a deliberate provocation, while London twisted itself into knots, spewing contradictory explanations. The MoD denied that Russia fired any warning shots, while the British Embassy in Moscow maintained that the vessel was just carrying out “innocent passage through Ukrainian territorial waters.”
The incident took on a new significance after the BBC reported on 27 June that classified MoD papers found at a bus stop in Kent, dated 21 June, contained an analysis of the potential consequences of purposely sailing a warship through Russian waters off Crimea.
The MoD initially refused to confirm that the documents were authentic, but later admitted that the papers were lost and said it was “very sorry” that this happened.
BoJo’s Cabinet Reshuffle
After a fraught few weeks, Boris Johnson reshuffled his Cabinet in September.
Thus, Dominic Raab lost his job as Foreign Secretary on the back of a campaign to oust him after he refused to come back from a holiday in Greece to deal with the situation in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul. Following the abrupt US pullout from the country, Taliban* Islamist group had achieved a swift takeover with government troops offering little to no resistance.
© REUTERS / Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/HandoutMembers of the UK Armed Forces continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021. LPhot Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Members of the UK Armed Forces continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021. LPhot Ben Shread/UK MOD Crown copyright 2021/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Raab retained the Deputy Prime Minister role and replaced Robert Buckland as Justice Secretary.
Liz Truss, after a spell as International Trade Secretary was promoted to one of the highest offices of state, Foreign Secretary. Former Brexiteer and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove was appointed Housing Secretary, replacing Robert Jenrick.
Liverpool-born best-selling author, nurse and reality star Nadine Dorries raised eyebrows after being appointed to lead the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Department.
Among the non-movers were Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who survived the fall of Kabul unscathed, with British troops being praised for helping evacuate vulnerable Afghans.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, one of the government’s top performers, retained his job too, and there is even talk of him having ambitions to take over Johnson as future prime minister.
Priti Patel, Dubbed 'Headless Chicken', Set for European Tour in Bid to Solve Channel Migrant Crisis
1 December 2021, 05:38 GMT
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who has been spearheading the Nationality and Borders Bill touted as set to “fix the UK’s broken asylum system” (the legislation has cleared the House of Commons and begun a journey through the Lords) similarly stayed on.
Sajid Javid, the former Chancellor, retained his role as Health Secretary. Battling challenges linked to the coronavirus pandemic, new spending on the National Health service (NHS) and the government’s plans for social care, Javid had replaced Matt Hancock. The latter had waded out ingloriously after caught on camera snogging an aide.
Harry and Meghan ‘Truth-Bombing Spree’
It wasn’t just the British government that took the hit this year, the Royal family was dealt a serious blow too. As bombshells go, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex generated more than their share during their first media appearance after quitting their royal duties. Shockwaves were triggered around the globe this March as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sat down for a tell-all with America’s queen of chat, Oprah Winfrey.
During the talk, the Sussexes dished scandalous details about their struggles in the royal household – including Meghan’s near “suicidal” state during her first pregnancy.
The couple also claimed that one unnamed senior royal had “concerns” about skin colour of their son Archie who was about to be born at that time.
Needless to say, Buckingham Palace, led by Prince Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, was reportedly left “reeling” by the interview.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s incessant “truth-bombing” is purportedly what prompted the resignation of Former Good Morning Britain (GMB) host, Piers Morgan.
The outspoken journalist maintains that the Sussexes' Oprah interview ultimately cost him his long-running job as he refused to apologise for trashing “Princess Pinocchio” Meghan Markle over her “lies” in the controversial interview. Markle’s complaint to his ITV bosses, claims Morgan, forced him to “vacate his chair."
Embattled Prince Andrew
Queen Elizabeth II has also been forced to deal with the acute embarrassment of the sex abuse allegations lobbed at her second son, Prince Andrew, over his links with the late convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s alleged sex slaves, claimed she was trafficked out by the tycoon and his purported “pimp” Ghislaine Maxwell to sleep with the Duke of York when she was a minor.
18 December 2021, 16:06 GMT
The embattled royal, who categorically denied the accusations, was forced to step down from public duties in 2019 following fallout from his interview for the BBC's Newsnight programme where he responded to the allegations.
He was slapped with a civil lawsuit over sexual assault by Guiffre in September.
Death of Prince Philip
Britain’s 95-year old monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has been forced to contend with not only hurtful attacks on the royal family throughout 2021, but profound grief.
Her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died on 9 April at the age of 99. Earlier in the year the longest-serving consort of any British monarch had undergone heart surgery and received medical treatment due to an unnamed infection, spending almost a month in hospital. His death, however, was certified as simply due to "old age".
Barbados Sheds Colonial Past
In a move that was chiefly symbolic, Queen Elizabeth II was retired as head of state of the Caribbean island nation of Barbados on 30 November, on the 55th anniversary of its independence.
The former UK colony was declared a republic, with Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, acknowledging the "appalling atrocity of slavery" the island had suffered.
'Shine Like a Diamond': Barbados Declares Rihanna National Hero as Island Becomes Republic - Videos
30 November 2021, 05:28 GMT
Barbados had achieved independence in 1966 becoming a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy.
It was the fourth British dependency in the Caribbean to become independent, following Jamaica (1962), Trinidad and Tobago (1962), and Guyana (1966). Even though Barbados has cut ties with the Crown, it will remain in the Commonwealth.
Assange Extradition Case
The years-long Julian Assange extradition saga also took a dramatic new twist. Ironically, on Human Rights Day, 10 December, the London High Court ruled in favour of the appeal to turn over the publisher to the United States to face criminal charges.
The judgement came despite District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruling in January 2021 against this happening on the grounds that he would face an “oppressive” risk of suicide if held in a US high-security prison.
The 50-year-old Australian who founded WikiLeaks is wanted by the United States for alleged violations of the country's Espionage Act after the site published thousands of classified documents that shed light on war crimes committed by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. If put on trial and convicted in the US, the Australian journalist faces up to 175 years in prison.
News of the ruling by London’s High Court reverberated across the world, with the International Federation of Journalists condemning it as a "major blow", while Amnesty International warned the "indictment poses a grave threat to press freedom both in the United States and abroad".
Julian Assange’s lawyers have filed an application to appeal to Britain’s Supreme Court.
‘Severe’ Terror Threat Level
The 2021 Christmas season saw the UK terror threat level elevated to "severe", with Scotland Yard warning of another attack ‘highly likely’ after an explosion outside Liverpool Women's Hospital on 14 November. An improvised device carried by the passenger, Emad al-Swealmeen, a Middle Eastern asylum seeker with possibly mental health issues, had killed him and injured the driver on Remembrance Sunday.
3 December 2021, 11:42 GMT
What was declared a terrorist incident by the police had come on the heels of the fatal stabbing of Conservative MP David Amess on15 October while attending a constituency surgery at a church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. 25-year-old Somalian Ali Harbi Ali, who 'Who Considered Himself a Daesh Affiliate', was later charged with murdering Amess and with terrorist offences.
*The Taliban is an organisation under UN sanctions for terrorist activities.