Will Johnson smuggle a bad Brexit through the coronavirus crisis?
As the June extension deadline looms, the prime minister’s priority will be to minimise damage to his personal brand and legacy
When Boris Johnson was a journalist he was a notorious breacher of deadlines. Officials and ministers say he carried that attitude into politics. His career has been fuelled by adrenaline wrung from the last minute of every decision, which means he has probably not yet given much thought to Brexit transitional arrangements.
They expire at the end of the year. If an extension is wanted, the deadline for seeking one is 30 June. In trade negotiating time, that is soon. But in coronavirus time it is a faraway horizon.
Making the case for a longer transition are trade specialists, economists and diplomats. They understand how hard it is to bridge the gap between London and Brussels in the time available, even without a pandemic. They dread the impact of talks failing amid a Covid-induced slump and can see that the crisis has slowed progress.
Veterans of Brexit talks worry about the absence of back channels in the current phase. Screen-to-screen negotiation is no substitute for meeting face to face, but the problem goes beyond the technical hurdles imposed by quarantine.
A sensitive grasp of what makes Brussels tick was a disqualification for joining the Johnson administration, which is full of people who observe European motive from afar, through lenses smeared with paranoia and complacency.
To the hardline Eurosceptic, transition looks like a remainer trick to bind the UK into continental regulations with no say and money to pay. The case against prolonging that arrangement has three elements. First, deals are easy, and only traitors or cowards deny it. Second, Brexit is a fiery spirit, best downed in a single shot.
Sipping is for wimps. Third, the UK gets what it wants by threatening to walk away. The EU will make concessions if Johnson looks wild enough to down the whole Brexit bottle.
Those arguments are as wrong now as they were in their 2016-19 heyday, but they still suit the prime minister’s temperament. He is convinced that brinksmanship worked last autumn; that the performance of running at the cliff and flapping his arms delivered a better deal than the one Theresa May had proposed.
It is true that Johnson’s theatrical machismo produced results – but only in the domestic arena. It convinced hardliners that any deal bearing the “Boris” brand must be sound, which gave political cover for a retreat. The Tory leader withdrew behind a customs border in the Irish Sea, something he had previously rejected and still denies having conceded, although it is a legal fact of his deal.
The myth of Johnson as world champion at playing chicken against the EU encourages him to seek a rematch. That confidence is bolstered by the belief that Brexit cliff-edges are not things from which businesses drop, but launch pads from which nations soar. The “Canada-style” free-trade deal that Johnson is seeking would disrupt the flow of goods, but the cost is meant to be offset by gains in sovereignty.
The logistics industry forecasts a need for 50,000 new customs officials to keep the border fluid. That is more than the number of civil servants employed by the whole European commission, but of course those are wicked Brussels bureaucrats who impose foreign red tape, whereas any new financial burden comes wrapped in a marvellous bow of indigenous red, white and blue tape.
That Brexit model takes the true believer down a dangerous logical pathway: if a small deal is better than a big one, no deal is the best deal of all. If the goal is separation, why keep a bridge? That was bad economics in 2019, and it has since mutated into something worse. The new strain of no-deal argument going around Tory circles is that any cost from Brexit will be irrelevant compared to the upheaval caused by coronavirus.
No one will notice which bit of the hardship was caused by leaving the single market. And reconstruction will be streamlined without the need to deal with Brussels. In short, we know the house will be on fire later this year, so it is better to fan the flames than to save any of our existing stuff, because we want to build a new house and don’t like our neighbours anyway.
That is not necessarily Johnson’s view. He hitched a lift with the radical Brexit cult to carry his ambition. It matched his style combination of English nationalism worn with libertine swagger. It served him well as a campaign vehicle. But as a programme for government, it has limitations. Its methods make the country poorer.
That flaw has not done Johnson any harm yet. Experience has taught him that blame for anything Europe-related can be shifted abroad or on to domestic enemies. He will be tempted to try smuggling the economic pain of Brexit inside the bigger pain of Covid-19.
But he might also never be as popular as he is now, at the crest of a national crisis. If there is a pragmatic compromise to be made, this is the moment. His subservient MPs would fall into line and not many voters would care, or even notice.
Tories who know Johnson well say that his overarching concerns have always been his place in history, and the need for it to be heroic. Last year that meant releasing the UK from the EU. Now it hangs on his handling of the pandemic. The prime minister’s Brexit calculations will flow exclusively from whatever he thinks does the least damage to his personal brand and legacy.
His crammer’s instinct is to ride a deadline and hope for the best. If he suspects that his status as a national champion will be dented by a European accident in December, he will swerve. But Johnson is a reckless, inattentive driver, and the only safe turning point is coming up soon. He could overshoot simply because he has not bothered to read the map or focus on dangers further down the road.
Coronavirus has changed Boris Johnson, and that makes Tories nervous
Caution in easing lockdown doesn’t fit the Boris brand that Conservatives first bought into
f the Conservative party had known last year that it was recruiting a leader to handle a pandemic, would it have chosen differently? Jeremy Hunt’s credentials as a former health secretary might have counted more, but not much. Get in the Tardis and go back to a Tory hustings in 2019.
Tell the audience about coronavirus and how managerial diligence is the quality needed most in a prime minister. The audience is unmoved. “Project Fear,” they groan. They only want to know if Boris Johnson delivers Brexit and wins a general election, which he does.
Returning to May 2020, we find some Tory MPs grumbling about the government’s coronavirus response. The message is confusing, the grip is weak. These are just ripples of dissent and Johnson will have to get a lot more wrong before his party is seriously disappointed. But ripples on the surface indicate deeper faultlines.
The tension is between Conservatives who are impatient to get the country out of quarantine, citing the cost of mothballing the economy, and those who fear that relaxing lockdown gives the virus new momentum to kill.
That is a difference of ideology and temperament. The lockdown sceptics are suspicious of anything that involves the state paying people’s salaries or telling them how to behave. They don’t like quarantine in much the same way that they don’t like the Health and Safety Executive or the European Union. They see bailouts and furloughs as sleepwalking towards socialism
Johnson does not want to upset MPs who hold that view, partly because his own instincts tilt that way. Also, picking fights with the Tory right is a hazardous business for party leaders. Buying their loyalty with wacky policy is the usual alternative.
But Johnson has had Covid-19 and he knows it cannot be treated with an enterprising spirit alone. He also has counsel from scientists that the virus is too prevalent to allow much unregulated activity.
Confusion around the government’s nebulous new “stay alert” message earlier this week stemmed from a conflict between clinical facts and a political demand for new facts when existing ones don’t suit a certain ideological prejudice. Hence the bizarre contortion of England – and only England – changing the rules, while keeping them mostly the same. Johnson wants to lean out of quarantine, but with his feet planted in the lockdown zone.
Some Tories who wish their leader had taken a bolder leap blame his sobering sojourn in intensive care. There is a feeling that this cautious prime minister, creeping out of quarantine in deference to doctors, is not the maverick daredevil they hired last year. This is not the “Boris” brand spirit that was advertised so often in the Daily Telegraph. They whisper that he has lost his bottle.
It is true that Johnson’s manner is altered and that serious illness leaves psychological scars. But there is a simple political equation being studied in Downing Street. Johnson’s reputation in the early stages of the crisis was protected by fair-minded public recognition that the disease was to blame for killing people, not the politicians trying to stop the disease. That could change in a second spike where infections can be linked back to premature easing of quarantine restrictions.
Keir Starmer’s offer of constructive opposition is calibrated to match public aversion to gratuitous point-scoring in a crisis. The hostility can easily be dialled up if the national mood sours.
Senior Tories say that Johnson is warily respectful of Starmer, noting the sure-footed start he has made, but much more troubled by Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish first minister has institutional powers to undermine the authority of a Tory prime minister whose charisma loses its magnetism north of Berwick.
Most Westminster eyes are focused on day-to-day politics, but Tory strategists have not forgotten next year’s Scottish parliamentary election and the wrecking ball of another independence referendum that still hovers over Downing Street.
Anything that can be cast as arrogance and complacency is toxic for Johnson, especially when it has a class component. It does not look good when the rules are amended in a lopsided way so that retired bankers can get to the golf course, while low-paid workers must travel back to precarious jobs through the Covid-19 miasma.
Opposition MPs are alert to that asymmetry but so too are Tories in “red wall” constituencies in the Midlands, northern England and Wales – Labour bastions until last December.
Johnson would not be in power without those seats and he won them by overcoming deep-rooted anti-Tory culture. Labour’s hold had been weakening for a generation, but it was broken by the combination of Brexit and Johnson’s unique salesmanship, seducing parts of the electorate that would not otherwise consider endorsing a Conservative candidate.
He managed it in two London mayoral elections and, while the formula that swayed the liberal metropolis in the 2000s is different to the one that worked in Brexitland, the magic ingredient – the “Boris” touch – is the same. It is notable how quickly the effect wore off in London once Johnson was no longer the candidate.
Those Boris party voters are not Tories in any traditional sense. Euroscepticism aside, they do not have much in common with the small-state, market-obsessed, Thatcherite cultists who seem now to define English liberty as the inalienable right to catch and spread a deadly disease.
That is a niche position when most of the country just wants rules that make sense and a government that provides a sturdy financial safety net.
The prime minister has tied himself in a knot trying with one hand to take dictation from science, while with the other hand feeding an insatiable ideological beast that won’t digest evidence. The contradiction is intrinsic to the whole project. Johnson’s appeal to the Tory party last year was that he could be liked by people who hate Tories.
That solved one problem by creating another one: keeping the support of people who had never voted Conservative before in their lives might involve doing things in government that lifelong Conservatives would never do.
That tension was buried by the election result and Brexit, but the pandemic is bringing it to the surface. Dealing with coronavirus is an expensive, intrusive, big-state business. Not much about the actions required to contain a pandemic and support the economy through national convalescence matches the “Boris” brand that Conservative MPs thought they were getting last year.
Their frustration will grow. He will try to satisfy them without doing exactly what they want, which is a proven formula for party division, dysfunctional government and failure at every stage of the Covid-19 crisis.
UK Covid-19 death toll passes 47,000
The number of deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK has topped 47,000, according to the latest available data.
The total includes new figures published on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics that show that 42,173 deaths involving coronavirus occurred in England and Wales up to 15 May (and had been registered up to 23 May).
Meanwhile, the latest figures from the National Records of Scotland, published last week, showed 3,546 deaths involving Covid-19 had been registered in Scotland up to 17 May.
And the latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, also published last week, showed 664 deaths involving Covid-19 had been registered in Northern Ireland up to 20 May.
Together these figures mean that so far 47,343 deaths have been registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, including suspected cases
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