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Are we over the worst or on cusp of calamity?

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden arrives in Downing Street, a cabinet meeting, ahead of MPs returning to Westminster. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA - Credit: PA

MICHAEL WHITE on a gloomy outlook as MPs return and dangers rise.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

Towards the end of our August staycation in north Norfolk I locked on to the idea that, far from being over the worst of it as autumn looms, society may come to see 2020 as the first year of the apocalypse. If society remains in sufficiently coherent shape to articulate anything much at all, I mused while digesting a Rishi-subsidised pub lunch.

What brought on these deplorably gloomy thoughts during a nice old-fashioned holiday close to sandy beaches so vast that social distancing is achieved with no effort at all? Certainly not Brexit or the sound of negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, taking frustrated pot shots at each other. In the bigger picture Britain’s self-severance from Europe is no more than a vivid daub of paint on a storm-tossed seascape.

I admit to being unsettled by reports that the teens-to-20s who make up Generation Z have come to regard the use of full stops as a form of passive aggression in what passes for social media punctuation. Rather more so by the Orwellian spectacle of Donald Trump’s mendacious coronation at the Republicans’ virtual convention, orchestrated in breach of all propriety from the Melania-vandalised White House Rose Garden.

The bizarre weather many countries – not just us – are experiencing further darkened my mood. That burst of intense heat, unusually high winds and savage, highly localised downpours, followed by unseasonal cold, all were hard to shrug off. An expert from the Met Office explained it well when she linked extreme weather events as being accentuated by more profound climate change: ‘We’ve turned the thermostat up a couple of degrees,’ she said.

So all that extra energy in the atmosphere, all that over-heated air and water, has to find an outlet. In distant, drought-stricken northern California, where we have family, lightning strikes – but little rain – produced an early start to the fire season. Some 700 small fires produced three big ones that create a lingering smell of smoke in the air 50 miles away.

That can’t do people’s health much good. Nor did those 150mph winds which Hurricane Laura dumped on the Gulf beaches of Louisiana 2,000 miles to the south east. With his usual blithe insouciance Trump visited the wreckage and declared: ‘They rebuild fast.’ But too much fire, flood and wind year after year will cripple the insurance industry, forcing already over-stretched national governments to fill the gap – if they can.

Of course global pandemic and economic recession were bound to turn up the thermostat on apocalyptic predictions of all kinds, making Whitehall’s catastrophe planners very nervous. Super-volcanoes, earthquakes, comet strikes and – did you read this one in the Times? – the risk of a massive solar storm which might wipe out communications satellites and electricity grids on which our world depends.

Britain experienced such a strike – the Carrington Event – in September 1859, but no one relied on sat navs or iPhones then.

Right, that’s far too much gloom as the nights draw in and the kids are finally starting the new school term, along with the politicians. Tory MPs return to Westminster in a querulous mood, unlikely to be more than briefly mollified by Tuesday’s appointment of Buck-House-to-Whitehall outsider, Simon Case, 41, as new cabinet secretary. It may be a stroke of genius or a gimmick. Fast-accumulating evidence suggests that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings like Yes Men and sack dissenters.

For their part, on lockdown, schools reopening and much else Tory MPs have been expected to defend contentious policies only to find ministers abandoning them within hours. No one should pretend it’s easy. Loyal MPs want the economy to normalise. Case numbers may be rising again as tourists spread the virus and some kind of winter second wave may be unavoidable. But treatment is fast improving and the death rate has plummeted. Yet MPs feel unloved by Number 10 because they are.

Despite which Boris Johnson remains such an optimist that he at least pretended to spend his Scottish staycation in a tent. Since his return he is instructing us all to resume normal life, sustain the summer’s encouraging economic recovery (15% in Q3 anyone?), to help save Pizza Express and all those deserted city centres. Up to 3.5 million still-furloughed jobs are at risk as the economy adjusts to new normal.

But how to nurture the recovery without forfeiting further trust and returning hope? Some polls suggest that Brits are among Europe’s most reluctant returnees but also – paradox alert – among the least worried about losing their jobs. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the one minister whose stock has risen during the pandemic crisis, is tasked with devising carrots and sticks to ease the process and keep the ship of state afloat and half-solvent.

He plans to phase out the furlough support in October, a moment of truth for many jobs and firms, while supporting those industries, skills and infrastructure projects which are essential to our collective future. They range from high tech manufacturing to bioscience research, from AI and green energy to humble health care. With or without the Covid disruption on top of the still-to-come Brexit disruption, these are daunting choices.

Is HS2 doomed when public transport patterns have fundamentally changed in the Age of Zoom? Ditto that third Heathrow runway when Gatwick’s very existence hangs in the balance? And how can the government, which in 2016 foolishly applauded the £24 billion sale to Japan’s Softbank of Britain’s only home-grown, global tech unicorn – Cambridge chipmaker, Arm Holdings – prevent its onward sale to US giant, Nvidia, now that battered Softbank needs some cash?

For once the label ‘world beating’ is appropriate. But unlike Softbank, which treated its acquisition well, Nvidia is more likely to treat Arm like Kraft did Cadbury’s in 2010: roughly. Its HQ shipped to the US, Arm’s licensing choices might fall victim to Trump’s trade feud with China, dressed up as ‘national security’. Do I hear vassal state?

There would be some comfort if we sensed the Johnson government had visible political principles and a coherent economic philosophy to guide it, an industrial strategy to reflect them. But the free market, low tax-and-regulation Thatcher era, still paid homage in David Cameron’s time, has given way to populist political opportunism and high-spending, even before the unavoidable cost of Covid containment. Footballer, Marcus Rashford, has a poverty plan. Does Boris?

In his desultory talks David Frost is fighting the EU for unfettered UK ‘sovereignty’ over state aid rules because (so we are told) Johnson won’t let him give ground on the principle that independent Britain must be free to regulate or deregulate as it sees fit. So he won’t publish the UK’s draft rules (Cummings is said not to want any) until late September, dangerously late for the EU’s German-led mid-October summit and provocative to Nicola Sturgeon who believes Scotland should have its own too.

In practice, state aid disputes could easily be managed on a case-by-case basis, costly and time-consuming, as the Swiss can tell you, but do-able. Like much about this stalled negotiation it only makes sense if both sides are testing each other’s nerves to the 11th or 12th hour (even a 13th hour extension called something else, some speculate) and Team Boris is prepared to risk, even to engineer, the Covid-squared upheaval of a no-deal, hoping to bury it in the wider global disorder, an election crisis in the White House perhaps.

When in doubt blame Brussels’s intransigence. Many voters will be happy to do so and trade talks are fiendishly technical. Most of us can understand the fisheries dispute at its simplest level (‘they’re our fish’), not the detail. Kent lorry parks and passports checks too, but not the countless ways failure will impact on their lives. Yet the autumn headlines are likelier to focus on the emerging battle over taxation, public spending and borrowing which everyone thinks they understand: voters want other people’s taxes to rise to pay for better schools and hospitals.

Team Sunak fired a warning shot over returning MPs’ heads courtesy of the Sunday’s Times. It reported that Treasury officials have been told to evaluate a rise in corporation tax (from 19% back to the global average of 24%), of aligning capital gains tax (CGT) rates with individual income tax rates – socially fairer, but clobbering the fragile housing market and investment – and further trimming pension tax relief that disproportionately favours the well-to-do.

Oh yes, and another stealth raid on the £15.8 billion foreign aid budget. That would be a sop to the Daily Mail wing of the party, but tax rises on the wealthy will be about as popular as planning decisions by Algie the Algorithm already is in suburban constituencies where Algie’s decisions may land. Haven’t they learned anything from the GCSE/A Level fiasco about the limits of politics by algorithm? Backbench MPs are poised to give ministers extra homework.

There is an economic case, made by analysts on both left and right, for not trying to rebalance public finances too quickly mid-crisis, as George Osborne proved in 2010 when his macho austerity budget snuffed out Alistair Darling’s cautious recovery. It proved a very counter-productive mistake: too much, too fast, George. Struggling businesses are going to need help this winter. Sensible public investment will be cheaper than pointless unemployment benefits.

But there is also a market case for showing that Johnson’s government is taking seriously both the deficit and, looming behind it, the ballooning debt mountain. Lost market confidence is not easily regained. Is Jacob Rees-Mogg telling Boris that? I doubt it. Again, the task will fall by default to independent-minded Tory MPs, to Team Starmer – gaining ground in the polls – and to the new (do I mean old?) Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, who carries what TNE’s Tim Walker calls ‘the stigma of the coalition’.

Yet such rational speculation sounds too much like ‘business as usual’ in these strange times when irrationality is fuelled by fear – some of it legitimate – and both are recklessly harnessed to his own political timetable by an American president whose persistent misconduct in office has long forfeited him a right to the informal title of leader of the free world and he instead ‘adds fuel to every fire’ – as Joe Biden puts it.

Consider this. Ugly, but localised, disturbances have taken place in a few US cities, notably in normally sleepy Portland, Oregon, where Jay Bishop, a white nationalist, was shot and killed, and in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a police officer called to a domestic dispute. In the ensuing arson and looting Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, shot two protesters dead.

A real leader would urge both sides – rival militias in some narratives – to go home and make it easier for the police to restore order. This is what Blake’s mother and Biden did, among others. Seeing law and order as his own Get Out of Jail card for the November election Trump praised Bishop the victim (‘rest in peace, Jay’) while exonerating Rittenhouse (‘he was trying to get away’), the alleged killer. Nearly 200,000 Covid dead notwithstanding, it is shameless and I fear it is working. Only in confident societies does liberty prevail over the siren rallying cry of law and order.

Edward Luce. the FT’s America pundit – son of a foreign office minister who honourably resigned with Lord Carrington over the Falklands fiasco in 1982 – wrote that the Republican party had collapsed into a personality cult, one with no election manifesto and a willingness to applaud whatever self-contradictory nonsense Trump family members spout on any given day. The party has been edging this way for decades, Luce adds, so that more real conservatives spoke at Biden’s convention – and will vote for decency and the rule of law – than did for Trump who inverts the facts on every occasion.

An American friend – Jewish and alarmed – emailed me this week to recall that when an SA stormtrooper called Horst Wessel was killed in a street fight with German communists in 1930 he was turned into a Nazi hero and the Horst Wessel Song became the party’s anthem. Is the United States, deeply divided by fractured culture and economic opportunity, falling into such lawlessness that the political centre cannot hold it together?

Joe Biden is too old, but he stands for something. Boxed in as he was, his choice of senator Kamala Harris as a running mate was probably his best option. But under late August’s big Norfolk skies I sensed that their bi-coastal liberal ticket may not be enough to win back the ‘fly-over people’ of heartland America who watch tone-deaf progressives making impossible demands and excusing some impossible behaviour.

In Norfolk I caught up with an impressive Netflix documentary about New York’s freshman congresswoman, the charismatic Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 30. Now is the moment for AOC to throw her clout behind moderation. Don’t bet on it. Charlie Hebdo magazine has just self-righteously republished the cartoons of Mohammed that led to that massacre. Extinction Rebellion marches on Westminster with its own uncompromising agenda.

Watching the unfolding tragedy we should not indulge in smug condescension. In Berlin 38,000 Germans (300 arrested) marched angrily against mask-wearing. Piers (brother of Jeremy) Corbyn was arrested and fined £10,000 for his part in organising – with fellow conspiracy theorist David Icke – an anti-Covid rally in Trafalgar Square. He will appeal, of course. Perhaps the Piers Corbyn Song is already being written.

In the year ahead, Germany, sheet anchor of the EU and the only country which can rescue Johnson’s ‘sovereignty’ strategy, faces a dangerous federal election in which Angela Merkel’s still unannointed CDU successor has to fight the far right AfD which is deeply divided between Jorg Meuthen’s relatively respectable white collar nationalists and the ‘Wing’, its hardline faction, led by ex-CDU Alexander Gauland. On Germany’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and much else, Trump allies have taken to openly threatening retaliation.

It is a recipe for resurgent German nationalism at a critical juncture in Europe’s affairs, just when the Strasbourg parliament pulls the other way. It wants to attach democratic conditions to the new EU budget’s funding for east European authoritarians in Poland and Hungary.

As once-Global Britain and its ‘punching-above-its-weight’ influence self-isolate from world affairs, its leaders may fondly imagine they will be left alone. That’s not how the world works. Greece and neo-nationalist Turkey, both Nato members, are squaring up over the Aegean Islands, with Israel and its new pals in the Gulf’s UAE taking sides. In the distant south and around Taiwan, Beijing is engaged in similar opportunism, all too aware that its navy is acquiring parity with the US and the rule of international law is weak.

In 2020 we got through August without war breaking out when the boss class was on holiday – as it did in 1914 and again in 1939. But who will take a lead if some crisis bursts from nowhere as the nights draw in? No name I trusts springs to mind. Drift springs to mind. Chins up.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. from The Second Coming, by W.B Yeats (1919)

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