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Politics in Kent: A review of 2021 as Boris Johnson's grip on the keys to Downing Street appears to start to slip


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Turbulent, tumultuous and occasionally toxic – it was a year in which finding words to adequately capture an extraordinary period in politics was futile.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson began 2021 in a relatively buoyant mood but ended it facing questions about his authority and how much longer he would hold the keys to Downing Street.

Boris Johnson, pictured at the vaccination centre at Saga in Ramsgate, has faced questions about his leadership. Picture: NHS Kent and Medway
Boris Johnson, pictured at the vaccination centre at Saga in Ramsgate, has faced questions about his leadership. Picture: NHS Kent and Medway

Our political editor Paul Francis looks back on the twists and turns of the last 12 months.

Entente Cordiale fizzles out?

Last year had ended with an ominous sight: lines of snaking queues of lorries crawling along the M20 in the direction of the Channel ports.

They had been cleared by January 1, when the free movement of people and goods and services between the UK and the EU ended.

But was this the beginning of the Brexit Armageddon the doomsters had forecast?

Lorries queue on the M20. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Lorries queue on the M20. Picture: Barry Goodwin

It could well have been but, no, it was all about Covid – as were many things in 2021.

A few days before Christmas, the French authorities had imposed a unilateral ban on lorries crossing the Channel amid fears of the spread of a new variant of coronavirus.

The logjam triggered Operation Stack, the emergency plan designed to deal with such events.

Cue frantic negotiations between the two governments which finally produced a compromise – drivers would need to show they had a negative test for the virus for 72 hours before being permitted to cross the border.

It was a sign of things to come in what turned out to be a tricky year in terms of our relationship with our nearest European neighbours.

Millions of pounds in funding is to be poured into Ramsgate. Picture: Chris Davey
Millions of pounds in funding is to be poured into Ramsgate. Picture: Chris Davey

Levelling up…or down?

Alongside Brexit, the government's pledge to iron out economic inequalities between regions, was a top priority.

While the initiative was primarily aimed at less well-off areas in the north, concerns over its geographical bias led to the net being cast wider to the rest of the UK.

In Kent, a bid of £26million for regeneration projects in Margate and Ramsgate got the green light and Medway secured £14m to convert two former dockyard buildings at the Chatham Historic Dockyard into creative workspace and studios.

However, eyebrows were raised over some bids that did not qualify or were deferred and the county’s only Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who represents Canterbury, said: "It is pretty clear they have mostly picked areas where they are likely to benefit but I guess most governments would do the same given the choice."

Cllr Mark Hood, one of the Green county councillors elected in 2021
Cllr Mark Hood, one of the Green county councillors elected in 2021

Green shoots in KCC election

The county council election, postponed for a year, did not not exactly catch fire with voters.

Nor did we see the traditional mid-term ballot backlash against the party in government as the Conservative administration kept its grip on what is a true blue Tory heartland. The Conservatives swept to victory, taking 61 of the divisions up for grabs.

But there were further signs of the growing popularity of the Green Party, which pulled off unexpected gains, notably in Tonbridge and Malling.

Two Tory cabinet members, Richard Long and Michael Payne, were ousted. True, a party with four out of 81 seats might not look very much but with gains in councils elsewhere, their numbers have slowly crept up.

Nigel Farage hinted he could make a comeback
Nigel Farage hinted he could make a comeback

Farage: The comeback kid?

Maybe. After announcing that he was to quit frontline politics to get, as he said in his own words, "my life back", Nigel Farage is toying with a return to, er, frontline politics.

His motivation? In an article for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote that he believes the “migrant crisis is out of control and the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to care".

It seems unlikely that he would stand as a candidate at a general election. His last attempt in 2015 – his seventh – ended in defeat.

If he does indeed return to the frontline, he’ll have overtaken Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in the comeback stakes.

No matter what Priti Patel did or said, the stream of people to make the dangerous trip across the Channel to seek asylum in the UK continued at record levels. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA
No matter what Priti Patel did or said, the stream of people to make the dangerous trip across the Channel to seek asylum in the UK continued at record levels. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

Border control

Despite a multitude of initiatives, the threat to use a controversial method to repel boats carrying asylum seekers and a £54m handout to the French government, it seemed nothing – and that includes Home Secretary Priti Patel – could stem the constant stream of small boats and dinghies trying to cross the Channel in record numbers.

By the end of the year, more than 27,000 people seeking asylum had arrived on Kent’s shores.

The perilous nature of the crossing was tragically illustrated when 27 people died when the boat they were in sunk.

The pressure on Kent County Council’s social services led it to stop accepting any more unaccompanied child asylum seekers in June.

It warned the number had reached unsafe levels and its services were at breaking point for the second time in less than a year.

Former Tory MP Charlie Elphicke. Picture: Tony Flashman
Former Tory MP Charlie Elphicke. Picture: Tony Flashman

Former Kent MP returns to court

Charlie Elphicke, the disgraced ex-MP, was found guilty of sexual assault and jailed for two years in 2020.

This year, he was back in court over his failure to pay £35,000 in costs related to the trial.

At a hearing, a court was told by the ex-MP: “I have no job, I have no career, I am long-term unemployed.”

It also emerged that the former MP was in the process of making a claim for Universal Credit.

Kent politicians were at loggerheads with the government over plans that could have paved the way for more building on greenfield sites. Picture: Michelle Thomson
Kent politicians were at loggerheads with the government over plans that could have paved the way for more building on greenfield sites. Picture: Michelle Thomson

Not in my backyard

Kent has long been a battleground over planning, with residents and local authorities pitched against developers in a never ending war of attrition.

But this year saw the government as the villain as it set out reforms that would give developers the automatic right to build in ‘zones’.

The backlash was predictable: Kent Tory MPs were warned by county councillors the changes could cost them seats in the election. And after the Conservatives suffered a crushing by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham, in which the issue was centre-stage, the government signalled a retreat.

But expect further skirmishes in The Garden of England to continue next year.

Allegra Stratton, the PM's former spokesperson, taking part in a press conference rehearsal in December 2020 in which she is asked about rumours of a Downing Street Christmas party. The footage was leaked to ITV News
Allegra Stratton, the PM's former spokesperson, taking part in a press conference rehearsal in December 2020 in which she is asked about rumours of a Downing Street Christmas party. The footage was leaked to ITV News

Is the party over for Boris?

It has been one of the oddest contributory causes for a decline in the popularity of a Prime Minister.

But as the year ends, Boris Johnson could find his fate sealed by an investigation into parties held at Downing Street.

After two years in the job, could his future really rest on what for the moment have been described as ‘gatherings’ that took place in breach of lockdown restrictions imposed at the time?

A sense of farce surrounded the investigation when the senior civil servant appointed to look into the matter had to stand aside.

"I'm fuming" - Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford on revelations about Downing Street parties during lockdown
"I'm fuming" - Tracey Crouch, MP for Chatham and Aylesford on revelations about Downing Street parties during lockdown

Why? Reports that he too had participated in one of the questionable gatherings forced his hand.

Sue Gray, a senior civil servant once described as “deputy God” has been tasked with rooting out the truth.

Depending on the findings, could we really witness the demise of the PM based on whether bowls of Twiglets and pineapple and cheese cubes on cocktail sticks were offered to guests?

With two notable exceptions – step forward Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch and North Thanet's Sir Roger Gale – Kent’s MPs kept their counsel over party-gate.

Either through embarrassment or, well it’s hard to think of any other reason.

It's fair to say North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale is not one of Boris Johnson's biggest fans
It's fair to say North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale is not one of Boris Johnson's biggest fans

With friends like these…

The veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale has never seen eye-to-eye with Boris Johnson and has demanded he consider his position on several occasions.

Even by his uncompromising standards, however, his withering assessment of his boss over parties in Downing Street was high-octane stuff.

He suggested he use the Christmas recess to "re-group" after a disastrous defeat in the Shropshire North by-election.

The top line of “one more strike and he’s out” was a headline writer’s dream.

The introduction of Covid passes led to a huge rebellion by Tory members, including five from Kent. Stock image
The introduction of Covid passes led to a huge rebellion by Tory members, including five from Kent. Stock image

Rebel yell – but not because they wanted more, more, more

Five Kent Conservative MPs helped pile the pressure on the PM by joining the largest backbench rebellion against the implementation of new Covid restrictions.

They included the Ashford MP Damian Green, Tonbridge and Malling MP Tom Tugendhat, Gravesham MP Adam Holloway, Chatham and Aylesford MP Tracey Crouch and South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay.

Their chief concern centred on the practicality of vaccine passes but others were aggrieved at the affront to civil liberties under the new rules.

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