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MICHAEL WHITE: We’re gonna need a bigger bloke

Prime minister Boris Johnson gives a daily COVID-19 press briefing at Downing Street. PIcture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

Why Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial style still jars with the mood of national peril.

Michael White has assessed the suitability of Boris Johnson’s prime ministerial style during the coronavirus crisis. Picture: Martin Rowson – Credit: Archant

More than ever I’m impressed by imaginative futurologists who boldly demand ‘action this day’ to tackle the coronavirus pandemic while simultaneously predicting the long-term changes – good and bad – it may bring to our economy, health system and wider society. Not to mention the more inclusive values that might underpin the new order. As the UK’s predicted death rate spike begins, that’s optimism for you. Fingers crossed.

Me, I struggle to predict the past, all too aware that much of what I am about to write today will quickly become out-of-date or plain wrong. But one backward-looking thought that keeps presenting itself is: would 17.4 million UK citizens have voted for Brexit if the referendum had been held after such a seismic event as the Covid-19 scourge instead of just after the Leave’s campaign long-desired ‘Freedom Day’?

It’s fast becoming hard to remember life before corona, though Faragiste freedom rhetoric has acquired ironical overtones since Boris (‘you must stay at home’) Johnson’s televised lockdown statement on Monday night. Even by January 31 ‘Get Brexit Done’ had become a defensive celebration, fraught with jittery awareness that the negotiations that matter still lay ahead. Johnson’s government was sounding bombastically serious about walking away from its talks with coronavirus sufferer Michel Barnier if it doesn’t get its way on its important ‘sovereign’ priorities.

I’ve argued before that, if Donald Trump, an ‘America First’ nationalist and demagogue, now ominously styling himself a ‘war president’, had won the White House five months before Brexit, not five months later, it might have alerted wavering voters to the dangers of a go-it-alone strategy, one so dependent on US goodwill. The thought might have tilted that narrow 52:48% result the other way. I’m less convinced now that I’ve seen Trump’s extraordinary catalogue of misbehaviour failing to alarm his core supporters – even as his ‘Democrat hoax’ complacency over Covid-19 threatens their lives.

Ditto Brexit. Remain regained some lost ground during Theresa May’s stalled tenure, but surely never enough to be sure of victory in a People’s Second Vote that never happened. The existential test we all now face is much more challenging. How we manage it, separately and together, individually, as states and as a global community, will shape future attitudes for a long time to come. After all, if a global pandemic isn’t a global problem, what is? Only an asteroid strike? Don’t tempt fate. Is that pigeon poo on the window – or an incoming rock? Ironic then that the chief complaint against the EU is the same as it is against Johnson’s Britain: that until the past few days it has done too little – so far – and too late. It’s natural that the nations states, which have more resources than Brussels and command greater citizen allegiance, would act faster – or not act in Italy and Spain’s case – both to contain the virus by shutting those Schengen borders and propping up their fast-declining economies with budget-busting injections of spending power. In her TV broadcast Germany’s self-isolating Angela Merkel didn’t even mention the EU.


But both the health and economic imperatives – sometimes competing for priority, Trump was right to say that – can’t do enough within borders. Scientists are working better than before at pooling their expertise so that Imperial College’s ‘suppression, not mitigation’ paper, reprinted by the Observer, has been hugely influential. But the pooling of patient ventilators and other vital personal protection equipment (PPE) for health workers has not. US states are fighting over scarce supplies, EU states too. Asian nations, better prepared after SARS, are unimpressed.

More to the point in the trade-offs between saving lives and saving the economy is the need for coordinated action by the Eurozone to protect not just the banking system this time, but businesses closed for the duration, individuals/families who lose their income and the euro itself. It’s not just a supply-side problem, as smart folk thought when Chinese factories closed down in January. It’s a demand problem when shops stay shut because customers have no money. The holy grail everywhere is a V-shaped recovery – quick fall, fast recovery – not an L-shaped slump. Ten years after the great recession we are not starting from a good place. Nor is the G20 whose officials were – finally – tele-conferencing on Thursday.

So eurozone officials and finance ministers are also tele-working frantically to expand forms of credit over and above last week’s 750 billion euro bond-buying package, credit lines and liquidity.

‘Coronabonds’ would fund stricken health care systems. It’s way above my pay grade and probably yours, most politically sensitive too. Familiar fault lines between the ‘frugal four’ – Netherlands and the Scans – and the Latins are again visible. Eastern European nationalists in Poland and Hungary join populist Italy in complaining about the EU’s do-nothing ‘smoke and mirrors’. Most German policymakers still resist any smack of mutualised debt obligations to help more ‘profligate’ allies.

As in Britain and the US there is division over the emphasis on loans – which have to be repaid by the individual or firm because governments only underwrite the bank lending it – and old-fashioned cash. Serious people are reviving monetarist guru Milton Friedman’s idea of ‘helicopter money’ – just writing poorer citizens a cheque because we know they’ll spend it, as rich people sitting out the crisis in their rustic second homes will not. Pooling ideas, copying each other’s good ones and adapting rapidly is what will save liberal democracies – or ruin them.

Talking of Boris, what should we think? In last week’s TNE I warily defended his cautious and permissive stance on the lockdown, which was already in mid-U-turn thanks to the Imperial College paper’s scary findings (500,000 British dead?) as I wrote. Blustering Boris has since taken a lot of stick for being slow – remember that Mustique freebie – indecisive and for poor official messaging. His own vague and evasive style has been a major culprit.

The Treasury’s pin-up, Cool Rishi Sunak and health’s Matt Hancock are much clearer, as are the scientists. ‘Common Sense’ Mogg is safely back in lockdown in his cellar. Using a teleprompter and not taking questions on Monday night reduced the PM’s confusion in a broadcast watched by a staggering 27 million people – but not enough. Alastair Campbell, who knows a thing or two, has been right to complain. Even the Tory press did. But there’s a lot of detail to be devilled and it isn’t easy to find a viable way to support the self-employed or enforce travel rules, fair but fraud-proof.

Johnson’s obvious discomfort, physical as well as emotional and intellectual – shutting down Britain must distress such a compulsive rule-breaker – makes him look unsuited to the part: he’s never been the stay-at-home type. Jeremy Hunt would be more reassuring, a Tory pal concedes before adding: ‘But Boris has a fifth gear which the others don’t have.’ True or false? That’s what we’re finding out. For now he’s the only PM we’ve got, even if everyone knows he’s a fan of Larry Vaughn, the mayor of Amity, who rashly kept the Jaws beach open despite that shark in the bay.


Until the Covid-19 shark proves a whopper I am not yet demanding that Johnson make way for a better leader or a government of national unity led by Anyone-But-Boris. A more ostentatious consultation of wiser older heads – from Blair and Brown to Ken Clarke – would be a suitably inclusive gesture for now.

And, if banker-chancellor Sunak can praise the CBI and even the TUC, both 
so recently Brexit-marginalised, Boris can surely find time for a chat with Nicola Sturgeon when she’s finished that angry phone call from acquitted Alex Salmond.

This is a long haul and Johnson’s reluctance to impose such severe restrictions on personal liberty may work in favour of public acquiescence. He’s plainly not Oliver Cromwell, gagging to ban dancing, or one of those progressive commentators a bit too eager to say that foreigners, especially Chinese collectivists, do it better: a form of inverted nationalism. Let’s hope most people accept Johnson’s reluctant instructions, not least because the Met points out that we have only half the police numbers that Italy has. How will they enforce fines with the courts shut? Is aggressive coughing an arrestable offence?


Let’s hope too that Imperial College behavioural scientists’ conclusion that public disorder is much less likely than public altruism also proves correct. Disorder would suit the lurking authoritarians, as does the blame game. Trump went off-script to say ‘Chinese virus’ which is scientifically crude – species-hopping zoonotic diseases don’t have a nationality – and politically toxic.

The Chinese flirt with saying the bug is really American, as do the mullahs in beleaguered Tehran who add that the US may have done it on purpose. This is dangerous talk, worse even than fake online medical advice. At least Chris Morris, BBC Fact Checker-in-Chief, is helping to hose that down. Morris can be more outspoken than he dared over those dodgy Brexit claims. Covid-19 has fewer tabloid fans.

That’s not to say there aren’t targets worthy of blame out there. The Sunday Times claimed a GP had made £2.5 million selling tests at £6,000 a go. I saw a hand wash at my corner store for £14.99 and the Republican chairman of the US Senate intelligence committee who gets private info (they have armed guards on the committee’s office door) rightly got stick for off-loading sensitive shares in February when president Trump was
still dismissing the threat. Even Fox
News recoiled. Trump backed him all the same.

More serious villainy can be laid at the door of large companies – most obviously banks – which were bailed out after the bank crash of 2008-9, either directly or via electronic money-printing known as quantitative easing. Too many spent the taxpayer-funded largesse paying out generous dividends to shareholders and bonuses to senior staff or on buying back their own shares from stock exchanges, thereby artificially inflating prices and – surprise – their own pay-day.

EasyJet is a prime UK example, a £174m dividend in the pipeline for shareholders, notably its founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

Yet it will expect the government to prop up its stricken tourism business, along with Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, a regular Oliver Twist for taxpayer soup. They won’t be the only ones. The Johnson government was forced effectively to renationalise the rail operators this week, another privatised enterprise in trouble before the Covid-19 crisis but generous with its dividends.

Banks’ ability to lend to the needy is directly – and sharply – reduced by such conduct.

The after-corona world, BC and AC as some historians are calling it, should demand a much fairer allocation of risk and reward, fewer lobbying attempts to chisel away at tighter regulation too. The power of the state will be greatly – if temporarily – enhanced by this crisis. It is already frightening free market ideologues whose own familiar remedies are unpersuasive. They might usefully reflect on that. Capitalist New York is an epicentre.

The futurologists are racing ahead, more driven by practicality than such theorising.

Having scrapped GCSE exams this June, why don’t we scrap the useless things forever, say some. Eclectic FT columnist Simon Kuper claims the lockdown could liberate millions of us from the tyranny of office working and the dreaded commute. He decided in the mid-1990s he would work more efficiently at home – and did.

Apps can monitor the slackers, says Kuper. Professors – though probably not primary school teachers – can learn to use the Zoom conferencing app to work with students in small break-out groups. So can grannies on Mother’s Day. I know one who did.

Shopping, game-playing, even dating, had already moved online before the crisis. There is so much more we can do to lead healthier lives in cheaper homes and a cleaner planet. Some estimates claim that China’s 3,000 corona deaths were more than offset by 20 times that number saved from death by air pollution from the industrial shut-down. One million die that way each year in China. Thousands still do here.

I realise that there are civil liberty issues when we casually talk of ‘apps monitoring slackers’ or give Johnson’s ministers and the police extraordinary powers to control our lives in intrusive ways not even deployed in the Second World War. No wonder MPs – David Davis among them – demanded the powers be time-limited as the bill passed the Commons before its own lockdown. Meetings of more than two people to be banned? Did Orwell’s Big Brother go quite that far?


But here we are, calmly watching the army help build the ‘Nightingale hospital’ for 4,000 CV-19 patients in the cavernous space of East London’s Excel Centre and elsewhere, I expect.Private health care staff are being virtually conscripted by the NHS and 10,000+ gallant retirees are coming back despite the risks. An NHS volunteer army is forming. Admirable. It offsets the supermarket selfishness. At the same time our movements shown via iPhone traffic are being analysed to evaluate how successful self-distancing measures are in changing contact patterns. Scary. But staying two metres apart is more apart than you might think. So is 20 seconds of soapy hand-washing.

On our Friday night walk Mrs W and I popped into a deserted local bar for a goodbye/good luck drink after Boris’s shutdown broadcast. Deplorable? We wouldn’t do it now. A Covid-19 reproduction rate of 2.75 per contact infects 250 people in a month, say the mathematicians. Reduce it to 1.5 and the number infected drops to 20. Who knew a month ago? Only the experts and it turns out they were divided too. Most of us are grappling with a steep learning curve, hardest for society’s most vulnerable and least resourceful. Even the Tokyo Olympic planners were slow off the mark to cancel.

With his compulsive optimism and conflict-aversion, prime minister Johnson talks blithely of wonder drugs and a 12 week-only crisis, predictions which the coming tsunami may render idiotic in a fortnight. But sooner or later he will have to confront the most delicate trade-off of all: inter-generational. In his crudely brutal, recklessly optimistic way Trump’s ‘cure worse than the problem’ Tweet hinted at it, as does Beijing’s hasty return to business as usual. There’s surely a limit to the extent society can damage, even wreck, the economy to protect what are mostly likely to be elderly lives, mine among them.


That more sophisticated free market brute, Dominic Cummings’s reported endorsement of the now-abandoned herd immunity strategy (‘if that means some pensioners die, too bad’) was emphatically denied by No. 10 as a ‘highly defamatory fabrication.’ Yet it sounds Dom-ish and contains a kernel of truth. Facetime, Zoom and other tech wonders allow us to talk regularly and cheaply to our socially-distancing children and grandchildren. It’s their future at stake, not ours. My new word this week was the ancient concept of ‘senicide.’ Look it up.

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