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Are coronavirus and the Durham dash blurring the bigger picture?

A protester outside Downing Street, London, as the row over Prime Minister Boris Johnson's top aide Dominic Cummings' Durham trip continues. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

MICHAEL WHITE on a revealing scandal and an even more alarming backdrop.

Lynch mobs are always repellent, even when they’re keen to lynch the blameworthy Brexit mastermind.

So I was not too upset last weekend to be accused of ‘backing Cummings’ after mildly suggesting to angry Twitteratti that it might be best to wait until relevant facts were clearer before stringing up Disruptive Dom on a metaphorical lamp post. The Mirror/Guardian investigation of his Durham Dash did sterling work, but was bound to have included an error or two. ‘Fake news,’ as a Trump graduate optimistically put it from inside the No. 10 bunker.

Privately I feared that Cummings Junior (aged four) might turn out to be suffering from some fearful condition that many such afflicted families choose not to talk about. Then we’d feel awful. On Sunday Boris Johnson’s feeble effort to defuse the crisis surrounding his consiglieri told us virtually nothing and enraged the Daily (‘What Planet Are They On?’) Mail.

On Monday Devious Dom was given the chance to show he could do better – in the privileged setting of the Downing Street Rose Garden where prime ministers and presidents are more normally seen. The venue underlined his exalted status.

Dominic Cummings arriving back to his north London home, the day after he a gave press conference over allegations he breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire – Credit: PA

And the rule-breaking recidivist did do better, clean white shirt and all. He further enraged many – especially the lately bereaved and the socially disciplined – with his unapologetic, self-justifying performance. Empathy low, self-awareness lower. The Mail (‘No Apology, No Regrets’) was not appeased and unleashed its wolf pack for a second day. On Wednesday, Tory Fleet Street backed off. But 40 backbench Tory critics held out after junior minister, Douglas Ross, resigned with more dignity than the scripted ‘Time to Move on’ chorus from the vassal cabinet.

Johnson’s craven dependence on his Dom was visible to all but the blind, those checking their eyesight on a round trip to Barnard Castle. His poll ratings dropped 20 points into negative, the Tory lead over Labour from 48:33% to 44:38% in a week.

My initial hunch was that Cummings had done enough to survive, at least until the next time. My mood changed when data-crunchers reported that he seemed to have tweaked his famous blog after his return from Durham – to make him look prescient and caring about coronavirus. Surely a new trust-busting lie should now be fatal? For Brexit hardliners he is a cultural icon: Farage talks, but ‘Take Back Control’ Cummings acts. Some of those who’d never seen the shadowy Svengali before – except as Benedict Cumberbatch – were relieved that he is not always a loud-mouthed bully. Not so for all pro-Brexit Tories. Others were underwhelmed (‘appalled’) by Boris’s Brain, even on what passes for his best behaviour. Boris’s ‘make up your minds’ invitation to voters was now sounding ominous. Most (65%) slept on it and wanted him out (Tories, 55%).

Scientists, medics, even bishops, were dismayed by the muddled messaging and lax behaviour. Questions abounded. Did he and his wife both write Spectator articles on their ‘London Covid lockdown’ to throw inquiring journalists off the scent? Why couldn’t he have said all this when reporters first inquired weeks ago? Transparency is usually the best disinfection. Against which, the adviser’s critics risked sounding pernickety the longer the row went on. Would the 1922 Committee of senior Tories come up with a fashionably snappy ultimatum: ‘Protect the Government: Save Our Lives: Sack Dom.’ Probably not. They don’t have a better leadership plan. Nor can they fancy death threats of the kind sent to one Cummings-critical cleric.

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Yet it is needy Johnson, whom the Cummings affair has demeaned and damaged. How many of his nine lives has this PM used up now? It must be a dozen and his majority is barely six months old. What must the EU27 be thinking? And the gentler lockdown message (‘Follow Dom’s Instinct’) is fatally tainted, albeit by a minority who dashed to the hills and beaches on the Bank Holiday. A Mail poll reports that more people (43%) have enjoyed the lockdown than not, and that a majority think it’s being eased too quickly for school or work. Clearly they weren’t among the boisterous crowd flocking to my local, selling pints in its sunny garden at the weekend. An impressive 43% told the Mail they had broken no lockdown rule. More likely the pub crowd raised their glasses with a ‘Thanks, Dom’. In this row – as usual – Boris’s appeal is always to the cavalier vote, not to the Cromwellians. His problem is that the pandemic has shown global Roundheads to be more disciplined.

But the world usually keeps turning and did so during Domgate. Is it only a week since Boris did a U-turn on those ‘mean spirited’ NHS charges levied on overseas care workers? And on the same day that the Met police decided there was insufficient evidence to show that mayor Johnson had improperly persuaded his staff to swing a few trade trips and taxpayer cheques in Jennifer Arcuri’s direction? This despite the widely-circulated belief at City Hall that the boss was doing her tech training course during cinque à sept office hours? That one won’t go away. Nor will that Mustique freebie or the missing intelligence (ISC) report on Russian influence, now handily entrusted to Chris ‘Failing’ Grayling, as the committee’s No. 10-appointed new chair.

There will be a reckoning – only not yet. The stark tally of Covid-19 deaths will eventually guarantee that, a European championship Britain didn’t need to win, not linked to global top spots achieved by insouciant fellow-populists in Brazil and the US. Brazil didn’t have much of a reputation to lose, but – as Alastair Campbell pointed out here last week – Washington and London did. The failure of the supposed ‘Great Communicator’ to communicate has ensured that Nicola Sturgeon, who has followed much the same Covid-19 policies, gets top marks from Scottish voters. At least they know she’s in charge.

Juicy scandal and the chance for moral outrage are always tempting distractions. Best to frame them within the bigger picture, where scandals rarely turn out to be more than a few eye-catching dabs of red paint, the sort of thing JMW Turner used to do to outfox rivals at the Royal Academy. The big picture is what decides the fate of governments, Black Wednesday in 1992, not trouser dropping ‘Back to Basics’, the Iraq War, not Cherie Blair’s fitness guru. And currently the big picture tells us – if we care to see it – that a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and the intensifying US-China cold war is producing a rapidly deteriorating political and economic outlook as the lockdown bills land on Rishi Sunak’s tidy desk.

They make the government’s sunny Global Britain scenario ever-less plausible by the day. Yet that is what remains on offer in the non-Covid moments of the government’s day. Before the hybrid, virtual House of Commons rose for its 10-day recess – back next Tuesday – it heard a sunny account of her plans for free trade deals from Liz Truss, deals which show little sign of materialising. MPs were assured that her eager embrace of the Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA) under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules will not leave the NHS vulnerable to the kind of financial engineering that big economies impose on smaller ones. ‘The NHS is not for sale.’

Swapping EU procurement rules for WTO rules? So much for taking back control, replied Labour’s Rachel Reeves, an MP to watch in Keir Starmer’s new power structure. Will the sovereign Commons be able to hold ministers to account on their trade deals? No, it transpires. This is a tight ship – hub and spoke, increasingly so since Cummings got promoted from a spoke to the hub. Truss talks a lot about tariffs and quotas, but regulatory alignment and non-tariff restrictions have been increasingly important since the Doha trade round failed in 2007 (over EU and US reluctance to give up farm subsidies, since you ask). Covid has further strengthened pressure to shorten manufacturing supply lines – medical PPE for instance – and promote economic nationalism in the name of security.

Closer to home Michael Gove, Cummings ally (protégé?) and Johnson’s ministerial fixer of committees, outlined the reality of Northern Ireland’s non-border in the Irish Sea. It is designed to keep the Six Counties inside the EU’s single market and customs regime – and the Good Friday Agreement – alongside the Republic while also claiming to retain frictionless trade inside the UK mainland’s sovereign customs zone. As Boris J promised: ‘No question of checks’ in either direction.

Gove said otherwise. ‘Although there will be some new administrative requirements in the protocol, these electronic procedures will be streamlined and simplified to the maximum extent… implementation should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities,’ he told the virtual chamber at his bland, silky best. Reeves suggested the detail points to extensive changes to monitor UK-NI trade. Theresa May politely sought confirmation that Northern Ireland will ‘be required to abide by EU regulations on certain goods until at least 2024 and potentially indefinitely.’ Yes, but if it doesn’t like how it works it can vote the system down in 2024, Govey blathered. ‘That sounds like my deal,’ May might have muttered under her breath.

This sort of sleight of hand goes on all the time, largely unreported by a Covid-obsessed media, the press gallery as empty as Westminster’s corridors. Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, hopes to persuade MPs to return in sufficient numbers to restore a Covid-compliant version of normality to the chamber. Yet last week his government imposed veteran backbencher and lifelong Eurosceptic, Sir Bernard Jenkin, as chairman of the liaison committee, the panel made up of all other committee chairs, in breach of reforms dating from the post-expenses shake-up in 2009.

Jenkins is ‘no vassal of the whips’, Mogg assured MPs. Perhaps not under Major, Cameron or May. New Tory MPs are starting to develop a taste for rebellion, a habit hard to drop once acquired. But nice Sir Bernard is not a natural rebel, he’s a Brexit pushover, keen to protect Johnson who has shamelessly ducked his twice-yearly appearances before the liaison committee – until finally cornered on Wednesday. The paradox of the situation is that Mogg wants MPs on parade at Westminster to roar for Boris while opposition MPs who want to roast him hesitate to set a bad Covid example by avoidable travel. I think they’re being too modest. We need them.

It’s not as if politics stops, this regime just shrinks the accountable part. There is mounting pressure in Tory ranks to tighten up on unfair trade with China, on strategically doubtful takeovers of useful companies – not just in tech – by cash-rich Chinese companies which are all subordinate to the authority of the party. Faced with a threatened revolt from 50 of his MPs – enough to overturn his 80-seat majority – Boris the backtracker has conceded a retreat from his 35% compromise over the tech giant, Huawei’s role in building Britain’s 5G mobile telecoms network. Aren’t 5G masts used to spread Wuhan lab Covid-19, asks the whacky fringe?

Whitehall’s new ‘Project Defend’ to promote reduced dependency is all part of a wider western alarm about the pace and scale of Chinese Belt and Road expansion which is about much more than better Eurasian infrastructure to promote trade.

President Trump proceeds in the same direction with all the finesse of a bull in a China shop. His secretary of state Mike Pompeo amplifies the boss’s bullhorn diplomacy rather than dial it down as his job is meant to do. Pompeo has ideas about becoming president, laughable not long ago.

But export-sensitive Germany is also now imposing restrictions on Chinese takeovers in the sensitive tech sector. The new Franco-German plan for 500 billion euros worth of corona-recovery spending from the new EU budget – being resisted by the ‘frugal four’ northern states, led by the Dutch – includes a specific provision to resist third country investment (ie Chinese) in such sectors. This week EU leaders have been Zooming on mutual interests of this kind with Japan, which has even better reason to fear president Xi’s assertive conduct.

And then there is Hong Kong. Normally such a threat to the ‘one country, two systems’ model agreed between London and Beijing in 1998 would be page one UK news, not the afterthought it currently is on TV bulletins. It is sad, but not tragic, if a 95-year-old with dementia dies of Covid. It will be a real tragedy if Hong Kong’s rule of law and fragile freedoms are wiped out by the Communist Party of China – a Leninist autocracy, as Australian PM-turned-Oxford-student, Kevin Rudd, reminded Andrew Adonis in last week’s TNE interview. Canberra is feeling the Beijing squeeze too.

Pushback would require both western unity and political will, both in short supply even if Dettol Don were not in the White House. Hong Kong may seem ‘a faraway country of which we know little’ (as Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia), but nowhere is really faraway now. Some of the same Tories are demanding rights of UK abode for up to 300,000 HK residents holding second class UK passports: yet again they are stronger on tight immigration controls
in theory than in practice. And then there is Italy where lucky Brits take holidays.

Italy? Yes, the cash-strapped populist government in Rome has been courting Chinese investment, competing with Croatia and Slovenia for a modernised Mediterranean port, preferably at Trieste, a city down on its luck since the fall of the Hapsburgs. China showed us more solidarity than the EU over Covid, Italians recall. Polls suggests China is much more trusted (Russia comes second) than Germany or France as Italian Euroscepticism rises. The Chinese are already investing billions in Piraeus, the ancient port of Athens. Russian and Middle East oligarchs are better known for buying sprees in London, but the idea is much the same.

As I have confessed here, I am much influenced by my recent reading of William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, a riveting account (if you like that sort of thing) of how Britain’s East India Company (EIC), the world’s first predatory multinational, divided and conquered – piece by piece – the rich and sophisticated states of India as the Mughal empire collapsed in the 18th century. The British trading hub of Hong Kong was one of many such EIC-inspired projects. So was its forcible export of Indian opium into China after the Opium Wars. The Chinese have not forgotten and may think it’s now their turn.

So Europe beware. Britain beware. Scotland beware if you get your independence, it is unlikely to be Belgian warships dropping anchor in the Firth of Forth. America would now lose a Pacific war with China, military analysts in Washington warned Dettol Don. Boris Johnson may be frivolous enough not to realise that the post-Covid world, emerging from pandemic-fuelled recession is not the world he vaingloriously envisaged in his negligent New Year message. Dominic Cummings almost certainly knows better. Steering Britain into such Inglorious Isolation is what deserved to get him sacked. The dash to Durham has just been just an unsavoury detail.

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