When Brexit and the coronavirus blurred into a political fog engulfing Britain last year, at the centre of it inevitably stood the leader who has been defined by both.
Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson stuck to the line that his country was at a turning point, on the cusp of a return to greatness after leaving the EU. A shortage of critical workers, supply chain disruption and a rollercoaster resurgence of virus infections were bumps in the road on the journey to his much-vaunted “Global Britain”.
As the world confronts the latest incarnation of Covid-19, Britain has record infections and taken another hit to the economy. But for Mr Johnson, Brexit and the pandemic are morphing into a political demon that now risks slipping out of his control after the more radical elements of his party gained the upper hand.
One year into “going it alone,” British civil servants have been told to avoid the word Brexit. Mr Johnson, the champion of the UK’s new freedoms, often looks like a moderate next to some of his more libertarian, free-market colleagues. Many pro-Brexit members of Parliament from his governing Conservative Party are now often the ones questioning his virus restrictions, undermining his majority in the House of Commons.
Globally, the disconnection between how the UK sees itself — exceptional, front and centre stage — versus the diminished power in the eyes of the outside world is jarring.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss said in a speech in London on December 8 that “Britain is the greatest country on earth” and that “it’s time to be proud of who we are and what we stand for”. Popular among rank and file Conservatives and seen as a potential rival to Mr Johnson, Ms Truss has taken over tetchy post-Brexit talks with the EU and advocates for a Singapore-style economy of low taxes and light regulations.
A week later, Britain’s trade minister, Penny Mordaunt, lectured an audience at the Carter Institute in Atlanta, Georgia, about Brexit. Leaving the EU “is not an event to be mourned by the international community or an act of self-harm or one that requires us to be punished,” she said. “America has a choice to make. How will you respond?”
The trouble is that US President Joe Biden already gave Mr Johnson an answer in September. He explicitly told the prime minister that a US-UK trade deal, the one promised as the ultimate Brexit prize, was on the back burner.
Erik Fossing Nielsen, who served as chief economist at Unicredit and Goldman Sachs, called Ms Mordaunt’s speech “bonkers” and “a display of complete ignorance and a fair amount of arrogance”.
“Brexit is a self-reinforcing process,” said Helene von Bismarck, a historian focused on Britain’s relationship with Europe. “First it was about leaving the EU, but it was always about so much more because people projected whatever they wanted onto it.”