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Coronavirus: Britain should look to France to see real leadership

French president Emmanuel Macron leaves 10 Downing Street after a meeting with prime minister Boris Johnson. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA. - Credit: PA

Former Conservative Party adviser BARNABY TOWNS says it is Emmanuel Macron showing real leadership during the coronavirus epidemic.

From history and heritage to population and per-person income, France and the United Kingdom stand out as peer nations. Bloody and then peaceful rivalry define a millennium of war and invasion and two centuries as allies following Napoleon’s defeat. The term Entente Cordiale was coined by Robert Peel’s foreign secretary, Lord Aberdeen, in 1837 and defined this relationship of equals.

Enduring through the 1860 Cobden-Chevalier treaty establishing free trade; the formal 1904 Entente Cordiale; Winston Churchill’s 1940 offer of a unified state; French premier Guy Mollet’s 1956 request for the same; and then in the EU, albeit tested by two de Gaulle vetoes and Brexit, friendly rivalry remains.

Today, two strong-willed ambitious individuals, who both began as political outsiders, stand at the helm of each nation and face the greatest global health crisis in a century, each from opposite sides of Europe’s new political divide: Macron for internationalist interdependence, versus Johnson’s nationalist populism. Both also take inspiration from political giants: Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

But to date differences rather than similarities are most evident. Broadcasting live from the Élysée, Macron appeared to channel de Gaulle, for whom such moments were a speciality, declaring ‘We are at war… The enemy is there – invisible, elusive – and it is advancing.’ In contrast, Johnson appears to have some difficulty summoning the Churchillian overtones of his hero, seemingly struggling in the spotlight he has coveted for so long: fluffing lines, mixing messages and failing to master essential details.

To be fair, Johnson is performing better than his populist comrade-in-arms, Donald Trump, who called coronavirus a ‘new hoax,’ concocted by his political opponents. When the virus was in its infancy, Trump declared ‘it will go away,’ inaccurately compared it to seasonal flu and then later claimed that ‘we have it so well under control’ and ‘we have done a very good job,’ while mute experts looked on.

Ever thin-skinned and ego-centric, Trump bristled when a reporter asked: ‘What do you say to the millions of Americans who are scared?’ His reply: ‘I say you’re a terrible reporter. I think it’s a nasty question… The American people are looking for hope and you’re doing sensationalism.’

But Trump, with his penchant for contradicting the US Centers for Disease Control, America’s public health agency, is an extremely low comparative bar and Johnson’s gaffes are hardly trifling.

As the UK death toll rose above 100, with the potentially lethal disease poised to kill millions and paralyse the world economy, Johnson was unable to stop himself from making such decidedly non-scientific statements as ‘[w]e’re going to see coronavirus off’ and ‘[w]e can turn the tide within the next weeks.’

True to form, on a Downing Street conference call with manufacturers to address the chronic shortage of ventilators in hospitals, Johnson couldn’t resist christening the emergency effort ‘Operation Last Gasp’.

Of course, Johnson’s flippancy and tendency to shoot from the hip have invited many unfavourable comparisons with less fun but more conscientious and cautious predecessors, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown. Like Macron, their work ethic and professionalism set them apart from Johnson, who disappeared from Christmas to late February and demands paperwork is reduced to two sides of A4.

Johnson also has had Trump-style difficulties with facts. Thus the prime minister breezily used an official No. 10 press conference to talk of a government target of 250,000 coronavirus tests daily, only to be corrected with the real figure: a rather less dramatic 25,000.

The prime minister also manages to contradict medical advice to camera, boasting of shaking everyone’s hand during a recent hospital visit.

Perhaps the real surprise about the skill and gravitas gap between Johnson and the likes of Macron, is the surprise. When asked whether the UK will seek to extend the transition period for EU departure – face-to-face meetings are postponed – the prime minister refuses to answer. Yet adding Brexit’s upheaval to this crisis would be the height of irresponsibility.

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Macron came to office with a serious programme of national renewal, with controversial proposals on tax, benefits, pensions, state industry and labour law. Johnson’s hard Brexit economic policy on government estimates would cut UK GDP by five to eight percent over 15 years is combined with massive spending increases, independently of the coronaviris crisis, unfunded by unpopular higher taxes.

Macron’s elegant yet efficient statecraft outshines Johnson’s bluster, providing our Gallic allies with thoughtful and effective leadership Britain lacks.

• Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser

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