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It’s too late for Boris Johnson to turn things around on Brexit – and coronavirus

MICHAEL WHITE on how the PM's inept leadership has left his own team looking for change

The PM's leadership has left his own team desperate for change. Cartoon: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on how the PM’s inept leadership has left his own team looking for change

Is it really four years this coming week since Boris Johnson’s self-serving toss of the Brexit coin swung the June 23, 2016, referendum narrowly in favour of Leave EU. It is, it is. What a wretched and frustrating time it has been for millions of people on both sides of that still-yawning fault line. Exhausting and demoralising, yet with no end in sight.

These past few days have set me wondering about a different question: how long will Johnson last as Britain’s Brexit prime minister? Unease about his inadequate performance is evident among Conservative MPs and the restless press. One Tory admirer who still believes that ‘Boris has a fifth gear the others don’t have’ tells me he has not recovered – ‘mentally or physically’ – from his near-fatal Covid-19 attack.

Mail columnists openly ask if ‘the deflated, indecisive Boris [is] merely a temporary phenomenon,’ laid low by Covid-19, or the ‘true Boris’ most TNE readers have always known? Downing St insiders privately tell their friends that the machine isn’t working and that Team Boris just isn’t up to the job.

That is how it so often looks and sounds in public as blandly Brexit-compliant ministers take their cue on free holiday meal vouchers from Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford. He’s a man who can spot an open goal with the keeper in disarray. ‘GOAL! Rashford has scored! ‘ Shut down the international development department and put Therese Coffey on the transfer list to pay for it.

One grizzled Labour éminence grise who’s seen it all, goes as far as to predict that the Tories will road-test two more leaders before they face Keir Starmer on election day in 2024. Next year we will get another Brexit hardliner for slow learners, followed by a wily pragmatist. Step forward Michael Gove? A lot can change in four years but, if ‘Trust Me’ Govey is the answer to a government’s lost authority, you can see how desperate things may be. Oxford science’s discovery of Dexamethasone’s benign side effect is encouraging, but it doesn’t change the politics.

Of course, the world we now inhabit is already utterly changed by the pandemic. Even the intricacies of the Irish border dispute and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) have paled in comparison with the science of two-metre distancing in the supermarket and the efficacy of wearing masks in the street, as well as on the bus. Black and white Britons protested against racial injustice together this week, but rather more of them celebrated multiculturalism by hitting those reopened shops with glee.

So much does the fallout from Covid-19 dominate the news cycle that the negotiating deadlock over Brexit Britain’s new relationship with the EU27 have rarely made the inside pages, let alone the pre-masticated TV news bulletins. Even Monday’s No.10 Zoom conference to ‘put a tiger in the talk tank’ (as Boris’s Book of Nostalgic Clichés put it) failed to compete with Covid or the Black Lives Matter controversies. Only the FT deemed the optimistic ‘bit of oomph’ spin worthy of page one.

Most realpolitik advocates I read, listen or talk to believe that both sides have too much to lose at this dangerous, nationalistic juncture in world affairs – in a week when Donald Trump pulled 9,000 more US troops out of Germany – to risk a no-deal outcome on December 31. From inside his bubble Johnson talks of being not ‘actually that far apart’, which either means he’s out of touch or preparing to retreat under a barrage of ‘Take Back Control’ clichés.

Brussels, Paris and – most important – Berlin still prefer an over-arching agreement that embraces close regulatory alignment overseen by the ECJ to what Council president, Charles Michel of Belgium, calls Boris’s ‘pig in a poke’. We’ll come back to that. But failure to achieve even a vestigial deal that leaves much more to be sifted-and-sorted in mind-numbing years ahead has the potential to damage both Britain and the EU27. It is tacitly admitted.

‘But Britain would suffer so much more,’ cry a chorus of retired diplomats of a certain persuasion. ‘The poorer UK regions would suffer most, as usual,’ warn economists. ‘Ethnic minority citizens at the bottom of the pile would suffer the hardest,’ add BLM activists.

They’re probably all correct. But before we get too carried away by a masochistic surge, it’s worth putting the last four years into the context of broader failure. Complacent and over-confident, David Cameron badly mishandled his own party and his EU ‘renegotiation’ ahead of 2016’s June 23 ballot. But so did Brussels and Berlin, which had not grasped the scale of resurgent promises to ‘Make America/Russia/the Philippines/Brazil/ Great Again’. Either that or they chose to imagine that modern Europe is safely vaccinated against that particular virus, as we might put it nowadays.

The EU’s big players had already been slow to respond to the 2009 financial crisis and the suffering imposed on weaker members of the Eurozone, notably Greece. Even the European Central Bank (ECB), hero of the hour under Mario (‘whatever it takes’) Draghi, was slow to pump helicopter cash into liquidity-stricken economies, as US and UK central bankers had done.

Moves towards some form of banking union and serious levels of EU-backed debt have been late and timid, despite the urgency of the challenge. Germany’s constitutional court is flashing its red light against further ECB mission creep. It is an arguably illegal judicial precedent that nationalistic Poland and Hungary will pocket, AfD nationalists in Germany too.

As post-Brexit budget negotiations intensify over who will fill the hole left by Boris’s bus, the ‘Frugal Four’ do not sound very communitaire either in 2020. At the same time the EU’s Long Trousers Tendency have not done enough to rescue the EU’s southern frontline states from pressures of global migration – driven by poverty, corruption and war. Most obviously not in Syria and Libya, both symbols of wider western retreat. Ailing Greece thus suffered a double whammy and initially elected left populists. Italians responded to the crisis by choosing right populists.

Angela Merkel, Germany and the EU’s rock, had already suffered her own wobble, the 2015 admission of up to million Syrian refugees, a policy lurch which would fail most of Alastair Campbell’s 10 point tests of good governance. As in Athens a ‘good Covid crisis’ has restored her government’s standing. But these scars are real and their consequences still unclear.

Health policy remains rooted in national governments, but institutions of the EU have not had a good crisis and struggle to find a role resisting centrifugal impulses so evident in PPE bidding wars where China – another instance of incoherent response to a strategic threat – joins info-wars Russia to promote divisive instincts. The European parliament has this week been promoting a campaign, interrupted by the Covid crisis, to strengthen popular ties at grassroots level with the EU institutions. Admirable, but …..

It is a brainchild of Emmanuel Macron and does not seem to have many friends among tired and fragile national governments. They are still reeling from pandemic and the debt legacy on slow-growth-to-no-growth economies. Coming from anyone less high-minded, say a lobbyist faking up local support for a controversial block of flats, we might call Macron’s plan astroturfing. There are opportunities here to learn lessons from the lockdown and reshape post-Covid societies to work better. Do we hear a trumpet call to take them? Is the spadework being done?

At least the French president has a good pandemic story to tell voters this week. The crisis is over, the virus beaten, life is returning to normal in the France they love. Complacent? Possibly, but the message is at least clear, the decisions have been taken, schools, work places and beloved cafes are opening in some semblance of order. Doigts crossed.

We cannot say the same of the less than United Kingdom, can we? Not when doctors, chief nurses and scientists mysteriously disappear from their No.10 podium when they refuse to ‘follow the politics’ on Dominic Cummings. Judging by the excess mortality rates, the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have handled the crisis scarcely better than England, but have better handled the sensibilities of their voters and emerged stronger for it.

To have been placed third in the global deaths table after the rogue populist regimes in the US and Brazil – if the eventually reliable data confirms it – is a blow to what remains of Britain’s reputation for pragmatic and competent administration. The lapse is noted far beyond the EU27, whose tourism ministers seem strangely resistant to ‘air corridors’ for cabin-fever British holidaymakers this summer while the UK’s R rate of infection remains stubbornly high. This despite the exhortations of the Tory tabloids, perhaps because of them and their conceits about British exceptionalism, where every pledge must be ‘world-beating’.

But the debit column in UK Plc’s account since 2016 is far more extensive than a late lockdown or the failure of ‘world-beating’ track and trace apps on the Isle of Wight. We have just passed the third anniversary of the Grenfell fire, itself a source of collective shame, especially for wealthy Kensington and Chelsea council. It is one made worse by the continuing failure to get that inflammable cladding off 2,000 buildings despite promises made – on ‘the back of a fag packet’ as Labour’s David Lammy said of Johnson’s new commission on persistent racial inequality.

Even Ruby McGregor-Smith, Tory author of the government’s 2017 report, struggled to defend its inaction on BAME issues. Covid, Grenfell, the Windrush affair, not to mention the shocking persecution of 550 or more sub-postmasters for ‘thefts’ committed by the Post Office’s own faulty software – all are derelictions of the state’s fundamental duty of care to its citizens. They tear at the fabric of society, much as Margaret Thatcher’s traumatic battle with the miners did, and Tony Blair’s ill-executed war in Iraq.

All states have failures. The Germans mishandled their migrant crisis, their new Berlin airport and their opera house in Hamburg. The French have suffered many months of gilets jaunes riots far worse than BLM protests and far-right pushback. The Dutch are dropping Zwarte Piet as a Christmas symbol and Belgium can no longer ignore King Leopold II’s savage personal looting of the Congo. His Brussels statue will not long survive. To their shame, Americans elected Donald Trump. No statues for him as the US pandemic persists. Sweden’s technocratic refusal to lockdown, so admired by US populists, is looking flakier.

But Britain’s post-referendum years have been particularly miserable. Redeemed by countless acts of good neighbourliness, by this year’s heroism by NHS and care staff, by BLM demonstrator Patrick Hutchinson’s dramatic rescue of a white counter-protestor from angry attackers, by quiet public and private decency, it has been a dreadful time for good governance at the centre in Whitehall.

Cameron fled the field. May dithered, then produced negotiating ‘red lines’ which turned out to be written in chalk, evidently lacking the stamina or guile for the highest office. At least she was honest in her way, Boris. Team Johnson’s poll lead over post-Corbyn Labour has shrunk from 23% to 3-4%, its Covid approval rating down to 30%. The other day I surprised myself by saying aloud: ‘You can’t imagine Thatcher or Blair leading us into this mess.’

How does this low level of confidence (now shared by most Leave voters, polls suggest) bode for the trade talk endgame? The PM breezily declared after this week’s Zoom with Ursula von der Leyen that they can be wrapped by July, not in 11th hour pre-Christmas talks as many assume. Not well.

Some weeks ago, Martin Wolf, wise Yoda of the FT, wrote a savage column in which he listed seven reasons why a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous. TNE readers can imagine most of them and don’t have to agree with all of them. In 2016, Leave explicitly promised that a free trade deal would be easy because Britain ‘held all the cards’ and would not need to infringe free trade with tariffs.

Ministers have steadily retreated from that. Michael Gove’s barely-noticed announcement last Friday that the UK would not seek a negotiating extension was accompanied by a six-month period in 2021 when tariffs and customs paperwork will be introduced step-by-step to ease business burdens. The Council’s M. Michel declined to reciprocate.

As with the Irish border issue he expects Whitehall to fudge and concede. But he knows that Johnson’s adhesion to last autumn’s political declaration on future relations included fair and open trade with a ‘level playing field’ on standards, properly enforced by legal arbitration.

Team Johnson is also rowing back from that on grounds of ‘sovereignty’. Yet it is gradually dawning on ministers that even sovereign states have to make concessions if they want trade deals with tiny-but-nice New Zealand, as well as the large-and-less-nice US. Washington’s small print demands may hurt UK agriculture, pharmaceutical and health industries, tech and much else. Boris is ever the man to trade a detail for a cheerily misleading headline. His officials will be under threat to go along with it.

In any case, our post-Covid world is already one of lower growth, less free trade, shorter supply lines, less cooperation between governments. Powerful impulses towards protecting home industries are busily infecting the Tory backbenches too. It’s not what Boris’ blasé free trade rhetoric envisaged. His journalist’s habit of writing his way out of a corner via a Telegraph column does not work in government. Just look how badly his ‘no victimhood’ piece for Monday’s paper bombed.

It’s not just the Mail and the Borisgraph. In last week’s New Statesman (yes, really), Tim Montgomerie, Tory true believer, former IDS advisor and founder of the ConHome website, recalled how it took Thatcher six years before she stopped listening to alternative advice. Flip-flop Boris sacked his competent critics after six months and another purge looms as the Vote Leave campaign goes on campaigning instead of governing. Without his shrewd ex-wife, Marina, to dispense candour, Johnson is lost, Covid illness or no. Cummings is now a liability.

Montgomerie is decent but naïve. But put an ailing Johnson together with an increasingly assertive backbench mood and he may not have the stomach for the fight much longer. His health gives him an alibi to quit, as it gives colleagues an excuse to produce the famous pearl-)handled revolver and a bottle of Scotch. They’ve noted the dark bags under his eyes.

It’s still possible to cut all sorts of pragmatic deals with the EU27 before December 31. Perhaps it suits Tory party managers to leave the boss in place so he can take the blame for inevitable disappointments that compromise over fish or the ECJ will inflame among the Faragistas – or the lack of compromise will trigger elsewhere. But the Boris Magic is gone. If you’d never noticed it, sorry, but it’s too late now.

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