The Speaker
Saturday, 25 May 2024 – 00:04

2021, As It Happened In UK and World Politics

12 months ago, we could not wait for the year to be over…

Netflix had just released their satirical reflection on the year’s events in ‘Death to 2020’, and at The Speaker we were considering quite how to sum up a year like none of us had ever seen before. Yet here we are, ready to see out another year, and it seems as though the events of 2021 perhaps even surpassed those of what was considered the most unprecedented year any of us would ever live through.

Just 6 days into the year America saw one of the most significant terror attacks on US soil since 9/11; instigated by the supporters of the outgoing president and resulting in the deaths of 5 people. At the end of the year, almost 2 years since the coronavirus had first been detected, a new variant emerged that threatened to undo all the progress that modern science had made with vaccinations.

In ‘2020 As It Happened’, published earlier this year, we wrote:

“As this book goes to print, we are already two months into 2021. There is a sense of hope for a better year ahead, though tackling the Coronavirus will no doubt continue to dominant headlines. U.K. nations are back in lockdown, though with governments committing significant efforts to a rapid rollout of vaccines, there is growing hope of some return to normality in the coming weeks and months – in a year in which the U.K. will also host both the G7 Summit and an important climate summit.”

Whilst the vaccine rollout did help most of us return to a semblance of normality by the summer, as we write this article, all four nations of the United Kingdom have reintroduced some Coronavirus measures, with only England not keeping nightclubs closed for a second successive new year’s celebrations. Whilst the United Kingdom did host the historic COP26 Climate Change summit, much of the early optimism was dampened, with the final agreement being watered down and most countries arguably committing to little more than unveiling their plans for transitioning to net-zero at the next COP conference in Egypt in 2022.

If 2020 was the year we stayed at home, 2021 was the year we cautiously stepped out into the sun, only to be sent back in a few steps and forced to rethink our approach. As it draws to a close, it’s time to reflect on the year that in some ways proved just as historic as 2020, and again, not always for the right reasons.

Through the ups, downs, and cautious optimism, this is our review our 2021, as it happened.


January 2021

New Year, same story

Vaccinations Ramp Up: In the final weeks of 2020, the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine received approval for use; in January, the programme ramped up. The rollout of a second vaccine in the UK came at a time where millions faced tougher restrictions due to a new, more transmissible strain of COVID-19, the Delta variant.

Capitol Insurrection: Just 6 days into the new year, the United States faced possibly the most consequential domestic terror incident since 9/11. On the day that Members of Congress returned to the Capitol to certify the results of the November 2020 election, Donald Trump spoke at a rally to his supporters, once again repeating his – demonstrably untrue – belief that the election was “stolen”. In the hours that followed, supporters stormed the Capitol and raided offices. People were shot, and bombs were planted. 5 died. In the words of prominent Republican Liz Cheney: “There is no question that the president formed the mob, the president incited the mob, the president addressed the mob. He lit the flame”.

Locked Down Again: Boris Johnson announced new measures for England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implementing similar measures, to ease the growth of the Delta variant. It came after increasing calls for tougher measures following weeks of rising cases.

Banned: Donald Trump was banned from Twitter over his tweets relating to the Capitol insurrection. He became the first president to be banned from Twitter and threatened to create his own rival app instead.

Impeached Again: In a month dominated by events in the USA, Donald Trump became the first president to be impeached twice, for his role in the Capitol insurrection.

New President: Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on 20th January, replacing Donald Trump as president, but also as the oldest person to ever hold the office at 78 years of age. Even more historic was the swearing-in of Vice President Kamala Harris. Not only did she become the first woman elected to vice president, but also the first person of colour, and first person of African American and of Indian descent to hold the office just a ‘heartbeat from the presidency’.

Vaccine Wars: The European Union sought to ban vaccines from heading to the United Kingdom and accused manufacturers of favouring the UK amid difficulties in production. It comes as the EU struggles to expand capacity to vaccinate its citizens in a race against the virus.



Historic Moments

Passing of an Inspiration: Sir Captain Tom Moore, the pensioner and veteran who raised £33 million for the NHS throughout the pandemic died at the age of 100. It was believed that he had been battling Pneumonia for a number of weeks, before being admitted to hospital with Covid-19.

No Conviction, Again: Donald Trump was acquitted in the Senate following impeachment articles being sent from the House of Representatives. The Republican controlled Senate had been expected to acquit the president, with a supermajority of 67 needed to convict, and prevent him from ever running again.

Economy Ruined: Official figures showed that the United Kingdom’s economy shrank by almost 10% in 2020, largely as a result of the lockdowns that saw much of the hospitality sector close.

Way Out: Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled plans for easing lockdown in England, with similar plans announced in the other nations of the United Kingdom. The plan saw a tiered unlocking with different tests to ensure that the UK case rates are low enough, and vaccine take up high enough, that the gradual reopening of the economy could begin.

Big Release: The Speaker publishes its book, 2020 As It Happened on the 22nd February 2021, looking back at the events of 2020 and how it re-shaped our world.

Breaking New Ground: Anas Sarwar became the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, becoming the first British Asian leader of a major UK political party.



At a crossroads

Budgeting for the Future: UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled his budget, which contained new packages of support to grow the UK economy beyond Coronavirus, as the UK sought to build back from the pandemic.

Locking Down Again: Just as the UK made some tentative steps towards the future, many European countries reintroduce new measures, as the cases grow and vaccine rollout proves slow. France and Germany are amongst those introducing the new measures.

Is It Safe?: Many European countries stopped the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine following a small number of blood clotting incidents in those who had received it. Though later the vaccines would be used again, the UK would be amongst those who banned its use for under 30s. Later data showed that the incidences were incredibly small and that the rates of blood clotting incidents were akin to other vaccines.

Sturgeon in Hot Water: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was found to have misled the Scottish Parliament over misconduct into the handling of sexual harassment and assault allegations against former First Minister, Alex Salmond.



Next Steps

Stage Two: England moved to stage two of lockdown easing, meaning that some shops and outdoor hospitality outlets were able to open once again, providing a much-needed lifeline to many businesses. This followed a consistent decline in cases and a hugely successful take-up of vaccines amongst the British population.

Death of a Royal: The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip and husband of Queen Elizabeth II passed away at the age of 99. At the funeral later in April, the Queen sat alone – as many others who had lost loved ones had done – on the pews at the funeral in Windsor.

Foul Play: 12 European football clubs, including 6 English Premier League clubs, simultaneously announced plans to withdraw from domestic competition and take part in a soon-to-be-formed ‘European Super League’. The move provoked outrage across the footballing world, and within days all English clubs had withdrawn and several others had also pulled out, seeing the regime collapse before it had even begun.

Justice: The police officer involved in the killing of George Floyd was convicted of murder following a long trial. President Biden called the move a step towards justice.



Back To Business

Electioneering Again: Polls opened in a bumper set of elections in early May, with postponed elections from 2020 taking place alongside scheduled 2021 elections. One of the most significant was the delayed election of the Mayor of London, where Sadiq Khan saw off his Conservative challenger Shaun Bailey, to win a second term.

And Another One: In perhaps an even more significant election, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party defeated Labour in Hartlepool, a once Labour stronghold. The defeat was a major blow to Keir Starmer’s leadership, in what was the first round of elections his party faced since he took over in April 2020.

Opening Up Even More: England moved to its next phase of the unlocking, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland taking similar steps. For the first time in months, people were able to enjoy indoor hospitality and events, though many venues, such as nightclubs, remained closed.

Wedding Bells: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds announced their marriage following a private ceremony.



Meeting up

Visiting the Queen: At the G7 summit held in Cornwall, Queen Elizabeth met with many world leaders to discuss some of the important issues of the day. It was her first event of this type since her husband’s passing, and the first major international conference hosted by the UK under Johnson’s premiership.

Delay: The government pushed back the date for the full reopening of the economy to 19th July, with the original date having meant to be no earlier than 21st June, following a rise in cases and concerns over the Delta variant.

Resignation: Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned from his post following leaked photos of him kissing an aide in his office found their way onto the front pages. He was replaced by former chancellor, Sajid Javid.




Batley and Spen: The second major test of Keir Starmer’s leadership went his way, after the party retained the Yorkshire seat of Batley and Spen. The seat was vacated following the election of Tracey Brabin, who resigned following her victory in the Mayor of West Yorkshire election in May. The seat was won by Kim Leadbeater, the sister of former Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered in 2016.

Lockdown Ended: Almost all restrictions were lifted in England, with nightclubs reopening and stadiums allowed at full capacity. It was the first time these venues could operate at full capacity since March 2020.

Rules Relaxed: Quarantine rules were relaxed for US and European travellers heading to the UK for the first time in almost 18 months, provided that those travelling were fully vaccinated.




Top Grades Topped: Following a grades debacle in 2020, the government opted for a schools lead approach to grading students. This saw a record number of top grades being given out, with nearly 45% of A-Level entries across the UK being awarded the top grades.

Afghan Crisis: US President Joe Biden pulled all remaining troops from Afghanistan, with the Taliban taking control of its capital, Kabul. This saw a scramble to leave the country, with thousands descending on the airports to be evacuated, with many even trying to cling to planes and falling to their deaths. The Taliban banned women from attending school and university and the country has descended into a humanitarian crisis. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab faces calls for his resignation following his handling of the situation, where he is alleged to have taken calls from a beach in Greece, rather than return to the UK.



Planning for Winter

Another dose: Vulnerable people in the UK began to be offered a third jab amid waning protection over longer periods of time.

Winter Plan: Boris Johnson unveiled the government’s winter plan for tackling the virus, with the suggestion of a ‘Plan B’, which would include vaccine passports and mandatory face masks, should cases rise significantly and increase pressure on the NHS.

Nicky v Whitty: US popstar Nicky Minaj clashed with UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty over the Covid vaccine after she made claims about the vaccine that he debunked in a press conference. Whitty said Minaj should be “ashamed” following her comments about the vaccine where she said: “My cousin in Trinidad won’t get the vaccine cuz his friend got it & became impotent. His testicles became swollen.”

Shuffled The Pack: Boris Johnson conducted his second major reshuffle as prime minister, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Educational Secretary Gavin Williamson the major casualties. Raab was replaced by Liz Truss and himself moved to Justice Secretary, whilst Williamson returned to the backbenches, replaced by Nadhim Zahawi.

Conference Season: Labour leader Keir Starmer gave his first speech to an in-person Labour conference as leader, where he spent almost 2 hours on stage taking on the Corbyn wing of the party and outlining his vision for the UK.



Tragedy Strikes

Johnson’s Turn: A week after Labour’s conference, it was the Conservative’s turn, and Boris Johnson turned on his typical approach in his speech to the conference hall. In a speech light on policy but heavy on jokes he railed against the opposition leader and sought to unite the party whose support for him had been waning amid narrowing polls.

MP Murdered: Conservative MP Sir David Amess was murdered whilst holding a constituency surgery in Southend. He died following multiple stab wounds, becoming the second MP to be murdered in the past four years. Southend was later made a city in his honour, following his tireless campaigning to gain his home constituency such status throughout his Parliamentary career.



A Moment for Change?

COP26 Begins: World leaders descended on Glasgow for the COP26 summit, aiming to make significant progress in the fight against climate change. The conference saw many significant agreements struck, but no knock-out blow. Progress was made, but after being billed as the chance to change the world, it is widely considered to have fell short.

Paterson Resigns: Conservative MP Owen Paterson resigns as MP for North Shropshire over a lobbying scandal. He had been given a 30-day suspension from Parliament for breaking lobbying rules, before Conservative MPs voted to abolish the committee who suspended him. Just hours after the legislation passed, Boris Johnson backtracked and Paterson resigned, forcing a consequential by-election in his leadership.

Labour MP Out: MP Claudia Webbe was kicked out of the Labour Party following her conviction for harassment. She refused to resign as an MP and continues to sit as an independent.

Peppa Pig PM: Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked about Peppa Pig whilst giving a speech to leading business figures at the CBI conference. He also impersonated a car engine during his talk, which was seen as a PR disaster for the prime minister.

Omicron Emerges: A new variant was identified in South Africa and causes grave concerns that it may evade the vaccine. New travel restrictions are put in place, and days later the UK moves to ‘Plan B’ restrictions.

Labour Shuffles the Pack: Keir Starmer shuffled his front bench in an effort to make Labour ‘look like a government in waiting’. Yvette Cooper returns to the front bench, and David Lammy and Wes Streeting both took more prominent positions in the shadow cabinet.



Christmas Party Time

Press Conference Party: The COP26 spokesperson and prominent advisor to the prime minister Allegra Stratton resigns after footage emerges of her joking about a party that took place in Downing Street during lockdown in 2020. This followed several other stories that there had been parties held in the heart of government when the rest of the UK were forced to stay at home and cancel their plans.

Bailey Partying at Party HQ: Former Conservative candidate for Mayor of London Shaun Bailey is pictured at a party with his aides held at the Conservative Party Headquarters during the 2020 winter restrictions. He resigns from his role on the police and crime committee in the London Assembly, and many staffers are investigated or suspended.

Boris Partying Too?: A picture emerges of Boris Johnson hosting a virtual quiz, where staffers in Downing Street were allegedly asked to come to the office to take part. Johnson was seen sat with two staffers presumably not part of his household/support bubble whilst in the Downing Street flat, a breach of the rules at the time.

Garden Parties: Another picture emerges showing a garden party at Number 10 during the first lockdown in May 2020 when such gatherings were illegal. Aides claim it was a business meeting, but wife Carrie and son Wilfred were also in attendance.

New Baby: Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces the birth of his second child with Carrie Symonds and second child whilst in office. His daughter is named Romy.

North Shropshire: The Conservative Party loses a seat held for 200 years after the Liberal Democrats win in North Shropshire, the seat held by Owen Paterson. This comes amid a slump in Boris Johnson’s approval ratings which see the first sustained lead of Labour over the Conservatives in polling since Starmer’s leadership and the largest lead since 2014.

Omicron Scuppers Plans: As the new variant Omicron makes its presence felt, the nations of the UK introduce tighter restrictions ahead of New Year – except for England. Most nightclubs and large venues close in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but cases hit their highest levels at any point since the pandemic began, with over 150,000 cases a day being recorded.


In 2021, the pandemic got both better and worse, and despite the fears over Omicron, it feels that the UK has turned a corner in its fight. But the events of 2021 stretch far beyond the virus and Boris Johnson will likely face renewed calls for his resignation when Parliament returns in 2022, with ever more information hitting the press about alleged breaches of lockdown rules by those in his government.

2020 may have been the year that changed the world forever, but 2021 seems to be the year where we adapt to living with the virus and looking beyond the pandemic. 2022 will perhaps be the year that connections are remade, vaccines are distributed more widely, and the world can create its new normal in a far more open and connected way than we have these past two years.

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