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Boris Johnson searches for scapegoats as he faces a big test over lockdown

Will Matt Hancock become Boris Johnson's scapegoat over coronavirus deaths? Illustration by Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

Having the worst coronavirus death rate in Europe would be a statistic hard to spin for Boris Johnson’s government. MICHAEL WHITE says the prime minister is already looking for scapegoats.

Boris Johnson. Photo: PA / Dominic Lipinski – Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

When the Daily Telegraph reported that Boris Johnson was returning to work under growing pressure from Tory MPs, businesses and his – and Brexit’s – financial backers to ease the lockdown, I was no position to dispute the paper’s claim that social distancing discipline has been fraying. Living near a small park and a large road I had observed more crowds on both during another sunny weekend. But at the time the Borisgraph message popped up on my phone I was exploring ‘OAP Hour’ at Sainsbury’s – my first such foray for weeks. It was much less busy than the park.

As we all learned when he spoke outside No.10 later that morning, Boris Mark II would probably have disapproved of my trip, even to a near-empty supermarket. Disciplined in tone, much healthier in his appearance, he even made a nod in the direction of consensus and greater transparency. Well, well. The world is definitely turned upside down when any of us can be reproached for self-indulgence by Mr Self Indulgence Mark I. Yet here he was rejecting the ‘Unlock’ lobby’s plea. Next stop, the May 7 review. Will he wobble? It’s the big test.

These are bizarre times and I would be delighted if Johnson’s conduct from here on confirms the portly chancer’s reformation. True, his pep talk framed his homecoming remarks to trumpet his and our ‘success’ in keeping the NHS afloat, thereby ignoring the 20,000 hospital deaths – a 40,000 overall excess mortality rate, if care home deaths are included? He thereby offended many viewers. But turning crumbs of hope into a cake is what leaders have to do when people need cheering up.

All the same, on the over-arching issue which draws us all to the The New European the news is persistently discouraging. Perpetual EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, expresses frustration at British obduracy and the lack of progress towards even a modest UK-EU future trade agreement. His concerns are echoed by Merkel allies in Berlin and elsewhere. Surely the Brits now understand the need for a post-Covid extension?

What they get back from London are blithe assurances from ministers that a deal by December 31 is still possible, reinforced by fist-waving jingoism from armchair negotiators in Fleet Street and persistent signs that Team Johnson is prepared to go over Lord Lawson’s non-existent cliff if Brussels doesn’t show more flexibility. Michael Gove repeated the message (‘coronavirus should concentrate the minds’) in an online session with MPs on Monday. There ‘needs to be some political movement on the EU side,’ is No.10’s official line.

Last week the Times carried a letter signed by the usual mixture of great and good, academics and oncologists, plus some familiar sign-anything Brexit diehards, insisting the negotiators are ‘perfectly capable of negotiating as planned’. If more time is needed (shurely not – Ed),’there are many ways of providing it without a formal extension’. A formal delay would tie us into EU law (‘present and future’), into billions of extra budget costs, prolong business uncertainty (sic) and ‘sabotage vital negotiations’ for trade agreements with expanding markets in the great world beyond. Above all, Britain might be sucked into ‘potentially astronomical bailout costs in case of a Eurozone meltdown’.

Not all the signatories are conspicuously qualified to make such sweeping judgements – I make the point gently – but faith can work miracles on the intellect. They may be right to fear a Eurozone meltdown, I fear one myself looking at the rising cost of servicing shaky Italian debt – 2.6% more than German rates. At last week’s fourth e-summit EU leaders again failed to resolve the loans-or-grants dispute and resolve north-south tension. Mediterranean tourism ministers – 10% of EU GDP – are also frustrated by the lack of agreed rules for travel, hotels and restaurants. A ‘corridor’ through France anyone ?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, alongside Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (left) and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (right) during a press briefing on coronavirus. Photograph: Simon Dawson/PA. – Credit: PA

But I do not share the Times letter-writers’ apparent belief that a Eurozone meltdown would not be our problem too or their refusal to consider that the next meltdown might be sterling’s. Rishi Sunak is having to write ever-bigger cheques to keep the economy on its financial ventilator and must borrow to do so – much of it electronic money ‘printed’ by the Bank of England. Confidence walks a tightrope.

As for those expanding global markets, the Times letter implies a Trumpian view that summer sunshine – perhaps with a shot of disinfectant for luck – will eliminate the risk of a second pandemic wave which both history and medicine tell us to expect. Possibly a third and fourth before Oxford vaccine (or someone else’s) arrives. Good luck with that one, Dame Helena Morrissey, Graham Gudgin, Ruth Lea, Andrew Roberts and you professors of theoretical chemistry and retired top spooks (I mean you, Richard Dearlove) who signed the letter.

Actually, it’s worse than that. As I was writing here last week, the gung ho attitudes that led this country to its late and ill-prepared response to the emerging Covid-19 crisis closely resembles the insouciance displayed towards Brexit and its predictable ill-effects. Brexit stalwarts may already be calculating that the pandemic will provide them with a fresh alibi if ‘sovereignty’ falls short of a world-beating formula. Not if Team Boris is seen to have fumbled the Covid challenge, it won’t. ‘Worst death rate in Europe’ would be hard to spin away.

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Look what happened to John Major after an economic storm sunk his reputation (1992) when sterling was forced out of the embryo-euro, or Gordon Brown after the bank crash of 2007-9, much more unfairly because he and Alistair Darling responded boldly to the financial crisis. UN and G20 responses to CV-19 are woeful in comparison to the 2009 response or to the ebola outbreak in West Africa, brilliantly managed by the international community in 2014-16.

Blame Donald Trump. Not content with exposing the US as a half-failed state in its abject response to pandemic, the Dettol-swigging nativist does his best to wreck global cooperation too. US and Chinese scientists are working together on a cure despite him. Fake and politicised science, naked conflicts of interest, outright cronyism and profiteering, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, embodies all the accumulated failings of the American system since its Pyrric victory in the Cold War: 9/11, Iraq, Wall St and now Covid-19, all mishandled. No wonder voters’ trust has evaporated.

Are we much better? Yes and no. The contrast between No.10’s daily Covid briefings, dull but decent, and Trump’s embarrassingly self-serving-self-defeating election circus – briefly suspended after last Thursday’s disinfection disaster – is reassuring. But there are too many pale echoes to take much comfort unless the New Boris mends his ways. The row over Dominic Cummings and data cruncher, Ben (‘Brexit’) Warner’s presence at SAGE sessions is a bad sign and scientists who loyally pretend it doesn’t matter do themselves – and the national interest – no favours.

On the upside, two national institutions much attacked by ideological or cynical Tories, the NHS and the BBC, have both shown their worth when the Covid chips were down, and refurbished their credentials as a source of comfort and reliable information – not to mention life-saving heroics on the ward. Ethnic minority staff, sounding oh-so-British in their in their old-fashioned stoicism and commitment, have been central to the drama and Thursday night applause. In his belated search for unity of purpose the pragmatic opportunist in Johnson is even courting the marginalised CBI and TUC.

Much good can come of this. It does not mean that Trump-style intimidation and a politicised civil service can’t happen here too. In a different, diffident kind of British way, it is happening. Not just via Cummings’s high-handed sacking of special advisers (one of several Johnson scandals kicked deep into the Covid long grass), but in a dramatic and highly visible way only last week. Have we already forgotten that after the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, said the UK’s decision not to join an EU ventilator purchase scheme, was ‘political’, he was leaned on hard to retract?

The crucial sentence in McDonald’s retraction statement was: ‘Ministers were not briefed by our mission in Brussels about the scheme and a political decision was not taken on whether or not to participate.’ As Martin Kettle pointed out in a shrewd Guardian column, the implication is clear, but obfuscated. The EU mission did brief Whitehall colleagues in the FCO and Department of Health. They in turn briefed ministers. The ministers did not take a ‘political decision’ not to join the EU scheme in February – who needs Brussels, eh ? – because they took a political non-decision and left the matter pending.

Only much later did Matt Hancock realise the value of EU cooperation and join such schemes. Not very important in itself – medical advice changed on ventilator use – the incident has all the hallmarks of casual Johnsonian arrogance. The World King wasn’t interested in Covid-19, though he certainly is now. As he scrambles to hide past mistakes and get ahead of the curve, will Boris be tempted to scapegoat ex-Remainer and leadership challenger Hancock for his own unfulfilled promises on PPE (a pair of gloves don’t count as two items, minister) or – most conspicuously – on those 100,000 daily tests?

Everyone knows statistics can be massaged, as Tuesday’s care home deaths shocker from the ONS – now one third of the total – confirmed. I have long assumed that home and care home deaths have been kept out of the daily mortality total in part because ministers can better avoid the ‘1,000 deaths a day’ headlines. Excess mortality – death from other causes in consequence of the emergency – have also been kept vague. They did the same in 1916 about casualties on the Somme – 20,000 British dead and 40,000 wounded on the first day, by the way – for reasons we can readily understand. But if voters think they’re being misled for no good reason, trust atrophies.

So Hancock is vulnerable and being briefed against as ‘Scapecock’ by some who should know better. Yet of all Johnson’s ministers – apart from Sunak – he is the one who has shown more drive and energy, more emotional commitment too. You sense he cares, not just about himself. Political calculation, evasion and sidestepping, are all visible, but faintly in the background. No Trump-like grandstanding for re-election.

In Keir Starmer and his durable health spokesman, Jon Ashworth, Team Johnson knows it now has serious opponents to hold it to account. ‘Overall Starmer’s shadow cabinet is more impressive than the cabinet,’ says a friend with 40 years on Whitehall’s inside track.

Eager-beaver Hancock has been given cover by Jeremy Hunt, constructively critical and always the gent; also by Andy Burnham, Labour’s last occupant of the health hot seat and a veteran of epidemic planning. Johnson would be wise to discount stories of great battles between Sunak and Hancock – he has a PPE degree and worked at the Bank of England – over the scale and pace of the exit strategy to ease the economic damage.

I just wish all those Oxford PPE graduates who feature in every modern government were better at procuring PPE when the NHS needs it.

But the pair of them get the dilemma: they know that premature relaxation will only make the second wave more devastating and demoralising. Lost jobs, exams, summer holidays, tax receipts, the cost is grim and long-lasting, but so are the alternatives. Tardy Britain at least has the undeserved advantage of watching the experiments in re-opening being launched around the world, from Belgium to New Zealand via Vietnam (which has done very well). Half-opening offices, pubs and cinemas with social distancing will be a logistical challenge. We can meet it.

One consistent lesson we will all have to absorb – as Bonnie Greer pointed out in last week’s TNE – is that women leaders seem to have a better Covid record than the chaps. That emerging factor may boost Joe Biden’s search for a woman to run as his vice-presidential nominee and (at 77) his likely successor, a development which may usefully goad the scapegoat-merchant in the White House to more misogynistic abuse.

It could also encourage more creative EU thinking in response to the Covid crisis and the Brexit talks, ‘political movement,’ as Johnson puts it. Why so? Because in chancellor Merkel, Ursula von der Leyen (German Commission president) and France’s Christine Lagarde, at the head of the ECB, women now play central roles in Europe’s future. They are more central to the current loans-or-grants battle over the Covid recovery plan than Emmanuel Macron, who has sided with the losing Latin camp.

Can they do enough to prevent a Eurozone recession turning into a deflationary depression that could derail the project? Can they and competition commissioner, Denmark’s formidable Margrethe Vestager, stand up to China effectively in ways that protect European industries and standards from Beijing’s predatory strategy – without a Trump-ish trade war. This week’s admission that Brussels watered down a report confirming that the Chinese engaged in Covid black propaganda – because of Chinese pressure – was not encouraging. Not that Global Britain does much better. Nor does the White House despite the scapegoating bluster.

Michael Barnier says London is ‘not engaging seriously’ on last year’s political commitment to a regulatory ‘level playing field’, to existing levels of access to UK waters for EU fishing fleets and an over-arching trade agreement, complete with a supervisory role for the ECJ. Johnson’s negotiator, David Frost, counters that he wants a trade deal like Canada’s and a fishing deal like Norway’s, with its annual quota negotiation.

Oh yes, he also wants full tariff-free access for UK goods. No, shout UK ministers, ‘WE’RE NOT BLUFFING’.

Both sides are pushing their luck and can poke holes in each other’s negotiating arguments.

But both sides will suffer badly from failure at the June summit or in the cliffhanging months which follow, which are likely to be played out against a background of continuing Covid drama and death, economic distress and encircling opportunism from Russia as well as China. Barnier’s inflexibility wore down Britain in the withdrawal talks. Unless Johnson’s near-death personal experience has made him as cautious as he now sounds on the lockdown, it may not work so well in the perilously changed circumstances we all face.

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