WITH anniversaries it is important to get just the right gift. Do things properly, even if the recipient is not known as a stickler for the rules. According to etiquette, paper is the present to bestow after one year, so consider this square of the newspaper our gift – I’m assuming you want in on this? – to Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he marks 12 months in office.

One would prefer to hand it over in person when he visits Scotland today, but his itinerary, as usual, is being kept under wraps until the last minute. Police clearly fear a large crowd of admirers will turn up, breaking Covid-19 guidelines. It would be like Elvis when he passed through Prestwick, but with a blimpish old Etonian in place of a rock and roll prince.

Can it really be a year since Mr Johnson stood in a sun-dappled Downing Street and, with a mob of bellowing well-wishers outside the gates, promised to confound “the doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” who said he would not get Brexit done?

He also promised to make the streets safer, ensure no-one had to wait weeks to see a GP, and tackle the crisis in social care. “Never mind the backstop,” said the new Prime Minister using the jargon of the time, “the buck stops here.”

He certainly tried to fulfil many of those pledges, albeit in unconventional ways. The streets were safer because they were empty. No-one could see a GP because surgeries were closed. As for social care, it had a whole other crisis to worry about. The story of Mr Johnson’s first year in power is inescapably the story of Covid-19. Everything else is secondary, even Brexit, crucial as its success, or otherwise, is to the future of the country. Any judgment on his first year in office is necessarily a verdict on how he dealt with the virus crisis.

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Though Mr Johnson would prefer to wait for the official inquiry, public opinion is way ahead of him. In a poll last week for the Sun on Sunday, 43 per cent of respondents thought he was doing well in his job, compared to 66% for Chancellor Rishi Sunak and 48% for the newly installed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

The new Commons double act of Johnson and Starmer was in action again yesterday at the last PMQs before the summer recess. These contests have settled down to a familiar routine in which prime ministerial bluster meets lawyerly formality. Neither man will be truly tested until the Commons, like everything else, is back to normal, or the “new normal”, whatever and whenever that might be.

If there is one word which sums up Mr Johnson’s response to the crisis it is “slow”. Slow to impose a lockdown. Slow to build up testing capacity. Slow in making sure there was enough personal protective equipment for the front line staff who needed it desperately. Slow to pick up on the crisis in care homes.

Since the PM, like the rest of us, was new to the crisis he was given an enormous amount of leeway. Normal business from opposition parties was suspended. The media were onside. He had been an unlucky premier, dreadfully so, but what was political ill fortune when so many people were losing loved ones? Then he fell ill, eventually ending up in intensive care. The shock, and the get well soon messages, were genuine.

Whatever goodwill he built up was soon squandered by his refusal to sack his chief aide, Dominic Cummings, for driving to Durham, and beyond, during lockdown. He failed that test of leadership, just as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon neglected to show the door immediately to her chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, on learning of her double lockdown breach. On his way into Number 10, Mr Johnson said politicians should never forget that the people are the bosses. Well, the people wanted Mr Cummings gone, yet he remains.

As for the rest of Mr Johnson’s first year, it was a mixed bag. The proroguing of Parliament and the subsequent defeat in the Supreme Court would be a stain on any PM’s reputation.

The General Election that followed was a triumph for the party, with hitherto-Labour seats falling to the Conservatives. How much that was due to voters’ impatience over Brexit, and how much to then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s general uselessness, depends on the observer.

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Then we come to Scotland, which stands in the same place it did when Mr Johnson became Prime Minister – stuck in the middle between the status quo and independence. Scotland has not appeared to figure much in the PM’s calculations this past year, though he has had other things on his mind. That is about to change we are told, hence his visit to Scotland today.

Thereafter Scotland is to be love bombed by Downing Street, with ministers encouraged to follow the PM north to talk up the benefits of the Union, particularly in the current crisis.

This, Mr Johnson believes, will tackle increasing support for independence in the polls and drive it downwards, just in time for the next Scottish Parliament elections. That is the theory, in any case.

The reality may be very different. Telling Scotland how much better off it is in the Union by talking up how much money has flowed from Westminster suggests those billions are in the form of grants and do not have to be repaid. In fact, Scottish taxpayers, in common with taxpayers in the rest of the UK, will be the ones eventually paying the bills Mr Johnson is running up. To adapt a phrase from a former Chancellor, we are all in this mess together.

Mention of George Osborne brings us to the  reason Mr Johnson will get in and out of Scotland today as if his trousers were on fire. When it comes to the Conservatives, Scotland’s memory goes back much further than a year. In the manner of Back to the Future, shall we turn the clock 10 years to the Coalition Government and the start of austerity? Or 40-plus years to Mrs Thatcher and all that came after? Earlier?

Scotland’s problem with the Conservatives has nothing to do with not understanding them. It is that we understand them only too well.


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