The highs and lows of Boris in Kent

Kent has always had an uneasy relationship with Boris Johnson even before he became Prime Minister.

The county’s MPs backed him when he launched his bid to become party leader saying that he was a vote winner. Our political editor Paul Francis reports.

Boris Johnson in Detling with Helen Whately (53635900)

After months of controversy surrounding Boris Johnson’s future, he has today announced his plan to step down as Prime Minister.

Nearly 60 MPs resigned in two days, starting with former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

Two out of the three Kent MPs who had ministerial roles in government were among the number – Laura Trott from the Department for Transport and Helen Whateley as exchequer secretary to the Treasury.

Boris was no stranger to the county when he was bidding to become leader of the party, visiting the county to rally support.

But he developed an uncharacteristic coyness once he had the keys to Downing Street and his subsequent visits were often cloaked in secrecy – especially when it came to allowing the media to shadow him, let alone ask him questions.

In April, he pitched up in Lydd airport to deliver a major announcement on sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. It was an obvious choice given the high profile of the issue. The only problem was that Kent media were not told about the event – strange, given the reason for his appearance.

In February, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson made another “surprise visit” to the Kent Oncology Centre at Maidstone Hospital.

He was accompanied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and local MPs Helen Grant, Helen Whately and Tracy Crouch.

Again, it was an event to which the media including KentOnline received no notification about.

Even when the media was told about visits, things did not always go to plan: an election visit to Rochester in December 2019 was scrapped at the last minute with party officials blaming lengthy delays for the non appearance of Mr Johnson.

Could it have been that the man in charge of governing the country was worried about what questions he might have to answer about challenges facing Kent? We shall never know but the hypersensitivity of politicians about the media and the questions they might ask has reached new levels under Mr Johnson, who was a journalist before becoming a politician.

Despite his rare and quiet visists, Mr Johnson will have a lasting legacy in the county, we take a look at that here:

Boris Johnson at Lydd airport

Covid: Dealing with the Covid pandemic was probably the toughest challenge faced by the Prime Minister.

The country was plunged into a series of lockdowns – which Mr Johnson was late found to have ignored on several occasions in a report by Sue Gray – with far-reaching ramifications for the economy as thousands were furloughed.

The Prime Minister faced criticism of his judgements over restrictions, with many saying he acted too late to implement them, leading to unnecessary deaths.

With the delivery of a vaccine, the spread of the infection was stemmed and the country inched back to a degree of normality.

The first vaccine was administered in early December 2020 and marked a significant step in the fight against the virus.

Boris Johnson gets the vaccine Picture: PA

It also marked a point at which the Prime Minister saw a lift in the poll ratings – dubbed the jab bounce.

Announcing that he was easing lockdown measures in December, he told a press conference: “I want to be clear, we don’t want to ban Christmas. And I think that would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many people in this country.”

But a few days later, families were told they could not mix as the government effectively cancelled Christmas with a third lockdown and another period of restrictions implemented.

The PM’s critics included a number of his own MPs, among them South Thanet’s Craig Mackinlay, a member of the Coronavirus Recovery Group of backbenchers.

Their concerns revolved around the issue of civil liberties and the right to personal choice, along with reservations about the impact of measures they argued were disproportionate.

Brexit: He promised to get Brexit done and he did finally get a deal that seemed initially at least to have satisfied both the EU and the UK.

But some of the gloss on the deal faded after leaked documents on the government’s contingency plans to deal with disruption revealed the scale of potential problems.

Among the disclosures was a warning that the motorway network could see queues of lorries stretching back 17 miles as new checks were implemented.

An artist’s impression of architect Lord Foster’s vision for a ‘Thames Hub’ in the Thames Estuary.

Boris Island: Among the flash points was the dream of Boris Johnson – and the nightmare of those who lived in its path – to build a new airport dubbed Boris Island in the Thames Estuary.

That undermined the fragile relationship between Kent and the then Mayor of London.

So intense was the debate around this proposal, the first question he always faced during visits to Kent was whether he intended to go ahead with the plan.

In an early demonstration of his stubbornness, he rejected the fairly damning report by the Aviation commission. It investigated the need for extra capacity and concluded the huge cost, economic disruption and environmental concerns made the proposal unviable.

Drop the pilot: While Boris Island was resisted, there was some irony that he was prevailed on to support the efforts of campaigners trying to re-open Manston airport in Thanet.

The issue became the focus of the general election campaign in 2015 when the then leader of Ukip Nigel Farage was the candidate for South Thanet.

It led to a ferocious tussle with the two parties claiming only they could deliver on a pledge to reopen the airport.

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Grammars: While the Conservative government has permitted existing grammar schools to expand where population increases justify it, the party stopped short of relaxing the ban on new ones.

The Eton educated Prime Minister had seemed ambivalent about the idea but it was reported that he was considering ways in which to overcome the prohibition on creating new selective schools.

For many conservative supporters, the government’s reluctance to open the door was baffling.

However, his recent hint that he was considering the idea had been seen as the government coming round to the idea. Johnson said he had “never been against academic selection…you need to look at how you do it”.

Green fields: If there was one issue that proved divisive, it was the government’s determination to create more houses in the Garden of England.

Kent Conservative MPs along with most councils took exception to various policy proposals they said would be unsustainable and concrete over vast swathes of countryside.

A bizarre plan to use an algorithm to calculate how many houses should be built in each part of the county was swiftly dropped; only to be replaced by another contentious policy plan which critics argued would skew the planning system towards developers.

Kent Politics Paul Francis


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