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New life, near death, political storms: Johnson's 'hell of a year'

Boris Johnson marks his first anniversary as Britain's prime minister on Friday
Boris Johnson marks his first anniversary as Britain's prime minister on Friday Tolga AKMEN AFP/File
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London (AFP)

Electoral success, Brexit, a global health crisis that nearly killed him, divorce, engagement and even a new baby. Boris Johnson has had an eventful 12 months in anyone's book.

Johnson, 56, marks his first anniversary as Britain's prime minister on Friday, having had what one lawmaker described to the Guardian newspaper as a "hell of a year".

A YouGov poll published Thursday indicated he has the overwhelming backing of his ruling Conservative party: 89 percent of members said he should remain leader.

But his toughest test could yet be to come, as the full impact of the coronavirus outbreak bites on the UK economy, which has been battered by three months of enforced shutdown.

Experts, too, are warning of a potentially devastating second wave of infection in the winter months, which could amplify criticisms of his government's handling of the first.

At the same time, concern is growing about whether he can secure a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, with time running out and little apparent progress made so far.

He also faces a resurgent main opposition Labour party, growing strength of Scottish nationalists and dissent among colleagues about increasingly centralised governance.

"Mr Johnson and his intimates would do well to use a period of respite to renew the government's own approach," The Times said in an editorial on Thursday.

"That it owes not only to a restive party, but the country, too."

- Brexit overshadowed -

This time last year, Johnson was relegated to the parliamentary backbenches after quitting as Theresa May's foreign secretary in opposition to her Brexit divorce deal.

But he comfortably won a Conservative leadership campaign when her repeated inability to force the agreement through parliament forced her resignation.

Almost immediately, he caused outrage by illegally suspending parliament to try to push through his own Brexit deal before an October 31 deadline.

He lost that battle, but then gambled by calling for the first December election in nearly a century to try to break nearly four years of crippling political deadlock.

It paid off, and he secured the biggest parliamentary majority since the 1980s heyday of Margaret Thatcher, paving the way for Britain's departure from the EU on January 31.

The split, after nearly 50 years of European integration, was supposed to be "a moment of real national renewal and change", he said.

But his promise of a "new beginning", marked by investment in public services and infrastructure, was soon derailed by the coronavirus crisis.

Critics accused him of being lax initially. As Europe locked down, Britain remained open, and only introduced stricter measures amid dire predictions of mass fatalities.

More than 45,000 people have now died in the outbreak, more than in any other country in Europe, and questions remain about the government's approach.

Johnson -- now divorced from his second wife Marina Wheeler, the mother of four of his children, and newly engaged to Carrie Symonds -- was struck down with COVID-19 in late March.

He ended up in intensive care and admitted later: "Things could have gone either way."

Just weeks after he was discharged, Symonds gave birth to their first son -- thought to be his sixth child.

- Challenges ahead -

If Brexit and COVID-19 have largely defined Johnson's year, there has also been a focus on Johnson's political abilities and temperament.

He was famous even before coming to high office, having had a prominent role as a newspaper columnist, quiz show guest, and as London mayor for eight years to 2016.

Known almost universally by his first name, and instantly recognisable with his wild mop of untamed blond hair, Johnson's reputation is often of clownish bluster.

But supporters say he has a skill for delegation and a steely resolve.

"He is colourful (but) with a strategic vision," French President Emmanuel Macron said last year. "Those who did not take him seriously were wrong."

Critics, though, say he lacks attention to detail, and his ungrounded optimism is ill-suited to the current times.

New Labour leader Keir Starmer, a former chief prosecutor, has won plaudits for his forensic, probing approach that has left Johnson exposed.

And there are indications of Tory dissent, in particular the power given to his most trusted aide, Dominic Cummings.

That -- and assured performances from his young finance minister Rishi Sunak -- could make life more difficult for Johnson as he enters his second year and his popularity wanes.

The YouGov poll said Sunak, 40, would win any future leadership contest by a landslide.

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