From Brexit triumph to by-election woe: 2021 for the Conservatives

2021 started off on a high for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, with triumphant Tories bringing in the New Year satisfied that Brexit had indeed been ‘done’.

On the eve of the final Brexit deal vote, on December 30, the Prime Minister encouraged colleagues across the house to ‘keep Brexit done’ and vowed that the country would no longer be ‘shackled’ to the EU. 

However his optimism and jubilance at getting his deal through the Commons quickly faded, replaced by accusations of incompetence as businesses the length of the country began seeing the new Brexit rules bite. 

Within the first fortnight of 2021, angry fishermen were threatening to dump piles of rotting crustaceans at the Prime Minister’s door and dozens of lorries descended on Whitehall to protest against the new arrangements. 

Firms said they were losing thousands of pounds a day when their trucks were unable to get into France, and their products – including high quality salmon, scallops, langoustines and mussels from Scotland – were slowly going off. 

READ MORE: Lorries pile up near Downing Street in protest over Brexit export issues

Brexit has continued to be a problem for the Conservatives throughout the year,with Lord Frost, one of the PM’s closest allies, giving regular updates on his negotiating progress over the Northern Ireland protocol, and other sticking points. 

Despite countless rounds of discussions with EU negotiators, Lord Frost was unable to make much progress and repeatedly suggested that triggering Article 16 – which would suspend all checks on goods flowing from Northern Ireland into Great Britain – was a very real solution. 

It came a surprise to many when earlier this month the UK’s steely negotiator announced he was quitting his role, saying he was “concerned” about the way the Government was moving.

In his letter on December 18, Lord Frost wrote: “Brexit is now secure. 

“The challenge for the Government now is to deliver on the opportunities it gives us. You know my concerns about the current direction of travel.”

The real reason behind his sudden resignation is not yet clear, with many equating his departure to the growing sense of unease around the Prime Minister and questions over his future as Tory leader. 

It isn’t just Boris Johnson who has faced a turbulent year. In May, then Health Secretary Matt Hancock was described by Mr Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings as a serial liar and said he should have been sacked. 

Mr Cummings said he “should have been fired for at least 15 or 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions, in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room, and publicly.”

Mr Hancock later dismissed the allegations, with the Prime Minister giving him his full backing.

Just one month later, however, the health secretary was forced to resign when images and video emerged of him in a romantic embrace with his closest aide, who he had employed to work in his department.

Mr Hancock initially held on to his job when photographs of him and Gina Coladangelo kissing were printed by The Sun, however CCTV footage then emerged of the pair in his office, and he acknowledged it was time to step down.

HeraldScotland: Matt Hancock and his aide Gina ColadangeloMatt Hancock and his aide Gina Coladangelo

Announcing his resignation on June 26, Mr Hancock said: “I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry.” 

At the time regulations stipulated that only people from the same household should be in close contact. 

In August, the pressure began mounting once again on the UK Government, this time over withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. 

The operation saw Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace clash and opposition parties accuse the Conservatives of incompetence, as thousands of interpreters and those who had worked with foreign forces tried to leave the country. 

Despite warnings that there was a real risk of the Taliban quickly taking control of Afghanistan as the US and UK military started to withdraw, ministers admitted they were surprised at the speed of the takeover. 

Mr Raab came under fire when it emerged he was on a luxury holiday in Cyprus with his family while the country’s capital, Kabul, fell to the militants. 

Once again Boris Johnson stepped in to show his support for his minister and said he had full confidence in him, amid mounting pressure to sack Mr Raab.

READ MORE: SNP MP Stewart McDonald challenges Raab over holiday

Several weeks later, on August 18, the foreign secretary was replaced by Liz Truss and moved to the Ministry of Justice during a snap reshuffle. He was also given the post of ‘deputy Prime Minister’. 

Things started to truly unravel for the Conservatives towards the end of the year when the party tried to change parliamentary rules to protect one of their own MPs. 

Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, was found to have severely breached parliamentary rules when he took on paid advisory work for two firms, and lobbied his own colleagues on the companies’ behalf. 

The MP faced a 30 day suspension, however the Tories tried to rewrite the rules on disciplinary procedures instead in an attempt to save Mr Paterson. Despite MPs being whipped to support the measures, a huge amount of public uproar was created as a result and leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg was forced to scrap the plans less than 24 hours after Tory MPs voted them through. 

Mr Paterson resigned in protest.

Just days later it emerged that Sir Geoffrey Cox, another Conservative MP, had earned more than £1m in legal work alongside his £82,000 a year MP salary last year and was alleged to be using his parliamentary office for private legal work. 

He was also working from the British Virgin Islands, where he was giving legal advice, while the Commons was operating remotely due to the pandemic, and was casting his votes from the tropical paradise. 

This prompted journalists to take a closer look at MPs’ additional earnings, with the revelations sparking public debate about whether parliamentarians should be allowed to have second jobs at all.

READ MORE: Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross ‘sorry’ and reports himself to Standards Commissioner over £28,000 of undeclared salaries

The Scottish Conservatives didn’t escape unscathed after The Herald revealed that Douglas Ross, the party’s leader, failed to declare almost £7,000 of earnings from refereeing football matches between November 2020 and January 2021, and also omitted his MSP salary from the Commons register of interests.

The MP for Moray has reported himself to the Standards Commissioner, who is now investigating.

Incidents which Downing Street spinners have attempted to dismiss all year combined to create a huge headache for the Prime Minister this month, and still threatens his leadership.

Reports emerged of parties held by Downing Street staff last Christmas, against coronavirus rules, with the PM alleged to have been in attendance at several of the gatherings. 

READ MORE: Boris Johnson and Tory party Christmas Covid rule-breaking allegations in full

Despite insisting that rules had been followed at all times, further reports emerged of similar gatherings across Whitehall including at the Treasury, the DWP, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education. Another rule-breaking gathering was held at Conservative party headquarters by campaigners working on the London mayoral election bid for Shaun Bailey, the Tory candidate. Mr Bailey has since resigned as a member of the London Assembly. 

As spin doctors continued to dismiss the reports of parties in at the heart of government, a video emerged of former No.10 press secretary Allegra Stratton, and other senior aides, rehearsing for a press conference and appearing to joke about a party at Downing Street. 

The day after ITV news played the clip, on December 8, Ms Stratton gave a tearful apology to waiting journalists outside her home, and said she had resigned from her post as Boris Johnson’s Cop26 spokeswoman.

HeraldScotland: Allegra Stratton speaking outside her home in north London where she announced that she has resigned as an adviser to Boris Johnson and offered her "profound apologies" after footage emerged of her when she was the Prime Minister's

A top civil servant has now been tasked with investigating several of the parties, to determine if any rules were broken.

Along with so-called ‘party-gate’, the Prime Minister faced further criticism when the Tories were fined by the Electoral Commission for failing to declare a donation towards the refurbishment of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat.

The total cost of the luxury revamp spiralled well above £100,000, with Tory peer Lord Brownlow footing a substantial proportion of the initial bill before it was paid back by the Prime Minister. Questions remain unanswered, however, about evidence Mr Johnson gave to an inquiry about the donations and who had provided the funds. This is now being further investigated, with the outcome expected in 2022.  

READ MORE: Tories fined over £52,000 undeclared donation for Boris Johnson’s luxury Downing Street flat refurb

To round off the year, at a time when things could not seemingly be any worse for the Conservatives, the by-election for Owen Paterson’s vacant seat was won by the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives had held North Shropshire for the last 200 years, and its loss has been seen by some as the final nail in the coffin for the PM. Others have given him the duration of the festive holidays to rethink his plan, and return to Westminster with a fresh set of ideas to save his party, and his premiership. 

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