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What Boris Johnson’s ‘emergency powers’ must and musn’t be used for

"Flattening the Sombrero" - a cartoon by Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on what the country needs from its prime minister… and his critics.

Of all the extraordinary things we’ve all read and heard during this jaw-dropper of a week, I still can’t believe the little gem that stuck in my mind like a stubborn bit of food between the teeth. Did Nigel Farage really attack Boris Johnson and his panel of experts for not shutting UK airports, borders, pubs and cinemas to repel the coronavirus threat, as other European countries have done?

According to leading epidemiologist, Professor Farage MEP (Rtd), we’re being used as guinea pigs in a huge experiment in herd immunity, possibly with ‘elitist’ overtones. What happened to ‘Take Back Control’ and Britain’s proudly-restored national sovereignty to do as we please, Nigel? We thought you’d spent the past 20 years telling anyone who’d listen that what faceless, unaccountable Europe does is always wrong.

I enjoyed typing that. But actually it’s a dud note to strike at a time of deepening national crisis, even if the target is Thirsty Nigel, though he richly deserves it and probably has a large stash of brown ale hidden deep in the cellars at Farage Towers in case supplies run out at Aldi. Cheap political point-scoring, as distinct from constructive experience-based criticism, is the sort of thing best left to Sinn Fein, much criticised for wanting Northern Ireland’s schools
shut because the Republic’s have been closed.

Schools are also shut in many countries, self-shut by many head teachers here too. Parents have kept their children home out of self-isolating duty or fear. There are good counter-reasons, less dramatic but practical, for keeping classes open as long as possible. Children are much less at risk this time than the grandparents who may be their day-time carers. And parents without a handy granny may need to work to live. Some must work if they are dedicated health professionals helping the sick (not just from Covid-19) to survive at risk to themselves.

Theatres are going dark, restaurants going out of business. Just a week after Gold Cup insouciance at Cheltenham, the Grand National is off, the 166th Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race too. St Patrick’s Day in Ireland was as subdued as a Calvinist wedding. Everything we said and thought a few days ago – including Rishi Sunak’s peashooter Budget – is woefully out of date as the crisis gathers pace.

In the wake of vastly greater sums being promised by EU neighbours and the US Federal Reserve – and Monday’s Bank of England 0.5% rate cut – the rookie chancellor had a second go on Tuesday night.

State-backed loans of £330 billion – 15% of the UK economy – signals borrowing on a war-scale (the claw-back taxes will come when it’s all over) and government intervention equally intrusive in our lives, ‘war socialism’ as they used to call it. Should loans be grants? Do the poorest and gig economy workers, renters too, need more help? Wholesome Sunak – half Joe Biden’s age – reminds me of Douglas Hurd, another public school head

In the circumstances I have been surprised to find myself sympathetic to Team Boris’s gradualist approach towards the pandemic, one of not rushing to follow the herd – herd instinct, not immunity – before the experts tell him the time is right to impose severe restrictions on personal freedoms. What the prime minister called ‘flattening the sombrero’ – along with that ‘Operation Last Gasp’ quip, a rare lapse into No-Jokes-Johnson’s former frivolity – meant delaying the virus’s peak to push it towards the warmer summer months when the NHS is always quieter. It would also allow the system more time to prepare for the spike in intensive care needs.

‘Isolation fatigue’ was the telling phrase one of his boffins used to rebuff complaints that Britain had not imposed draconian measures as rapidly or as comprehensively as France, Germany or – of course – Italy, the second biggest epicentre outside China. Dramatic gestures are fine, but they must be ‘effective and sustainable,’ the boffins stress. When I hear our EU friends shutting everything for just two weeks I’m not sure they’ve grasped the scale of the challenge, its uncertain duration and unknown outcomes. War analogies are inappropriate here, but tempting to everyone – see below – and this looks set to become the greatest global disruption since 1945.

Inevitably there is plenty to criticise ministers for: a lack of transparency in providing scientific data, mixed messaging and selective (therefore confusing) media briefing at the weekend; the belated appeals to industry to help make ventilators, test kits; and – above all ? – harnessing Britain’s great research base to find an anti-viral drug that works. Even Neville Chamberlain remembered to increase fighter plane production during his doomed Appeasement in 1938-39. But such errors will be forgiven if the country pulls through without an apocalypse on several fronts. But the tone has mostly been constructive. Labour’s John McDonnell has done well.

After Imperial College’s revised projections, the medical phoney war ended on Monday night when Johnson appeared at the No.10 podium, flanked by Chris Whitty (CMO) and Patrick Vallance (CSA), for the first of what will be the daily press conferences. We’ve all read or heard what’s expected of us, collectively and individually in terms of social-distancing and self-isolation. As an introvert I confess I’ve been practising for decades, but this will be much harder and for longer. No ritual Easter gathering of the wider family in St Ives (the shutdown will hurt Cornwall badly), no cinema – our local has just shut – no lunches with pals. Surely I can sneak them in occasionally? ‘NO, DAD!’ shout our children – and everyone else’s.

Many are much worse-placed than we are. But the hope I tentatively voiced here last week that the crisis may bring communities together, heal Brexit wounds and make us rethink how we live our lives, is bearing fruit. Young neighbours in our block of flats, virtual strangers some of them, have offered to do the shopping and other chores. Supermarkets are sensibly rationing. Community networks like Covid-19 Mutual Aid are springing up. My wife, always more practical than me, is asking friends and family across the country whether they know local food banks which might need a cheque. It reminds me of an altruistic aunt who used to say: ‘I must go now, darlings, I’ve got to take my old people shopping.’ Cries of: ‘But aunt, your old people are all younger than you.’

Voluntarism is attractive. So is liberty. Dominic Lawson wrote an ingenious Daily Mail column this week in which he declared that liberal and metropolitan Boris – the ‘Good Boris’ we once thought we knew – instinctively reveres freedom, unlike lefties (so Johnson once wrote) who itch to control and dictate. That’s why he famously defended pie-eating during an obesity scare. Unless it’s a dodge to avoid any liability for shutting down customer-facing businesses (the insurance position still remains unclear as I write), the same ‘Merrie England’ instinct frames Johnson’s refusal (so far?) to impose closure on airlines, restaurants and all those employers with looming cash flow problems, the millions who may lose already insecure jobs. Solidarity with them is attractive too.

Unlike Emmanuel Macron – the French are always more statist – Johnson was vague about help for gig economy workers and merely gave big event planners a nudge to close by withdrawing emergency services. Do you remember how the US banned its athletes from participating in the 1980 Moscow Olympics – in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Mrs Thatcher strong-armed the British Olympic Committee to follow suit. But it rightly refused to be bullied by gesture politics and future Tory MP and Olympic president Seb Coe won his first gold medal. I thought better of her and the BOC for demonstrating how free societies should work, in contrast to White House diktat. We queue for loo rolls, the cousins queue for guns.

In a health and economic crisis as big as this one the choice option looks stylish but is inadequate. We can all see that everything is shutting down as the shelves and roads empty. No one can say for how long or how many firms will ever reopen. At the end of the day only the deep pockets of governments – acting separately and together to spare firms and hard-pressed families from penury and hunger – can prevent the certainty of global recession turning into a 1930s-style depression.

That scenario now could end as badly as it did then, many of the decade’s nationalistic and trade protectionist instincts are back in place, along with the demagogues. It’s easy to feel helpless. Optimism matters. This country ‘has nothing to fear but fear itself,’ newly-elected president Roosevelt declared in 1932. Not true, but the right idea. FDR pragmatically tried everything. If it didn’t work, he tried something else. Then as now, families will need enough food and money to get through. Some firms are like older people, they have pre-existing conditions which make it hard to save them, Laura Ashley expired mid-week. VAT breaks, NICs breaks, rates holidays, corporation tax rebates for firms profitable enough to pay it, those with a viable future. Try everything. Sunak’s ‘whatever it takes’ reboot (one of your better three-word slogans, Dom) and ‘no time for ideology’ pledge embraces that spirit.

Can Johnson rise belatedly to the occasion? So far so good. As much as we can tell the pace of government is quickening since I asked that question here last week. Someone wrote that Dominic Cummings’ blog shows a persistent interest in epidemiology which might have sounded sinister a month ago. Tech chiefs were summoned to No.10 last week where Cummings told them this is their ‘Bletchley Park moment’ to serve their country.

A pity Dom didn’t get the Bank of England to stress test a viral pandemic as well as bank solvency. A pity ministers, distracted by the opportunity costs of Brexit, didn’t take more precautions sooner. But we are where we are, entering the mitigation phase of the pandemic, still seeking to flatten that sombrero, now imposing curbs on personal and economic freedom to mitigate the plague.

Most tabloids employ no more specialist science writers than they do Brussels correspondents. They are ill-equipped to calibrate the nuanced messaging from the impressive array of experts available to share their knowledge on radio and TV, able to disagree in civilised terms. Lawson’s column revealed that Susan Michie, a health psychologist who vocally defended Johnson’s gradualist tactics, is a prominent communist, once married to hardline Corbyn adviser, Andrew Murray. A crisis produces strange alliances. With its extensive resources and expertise the BBC’s strengths may come to be better appreciated during this unavoidably shared national experience – so unlike the solitary life we live on our screens.

No-Jokes-Johnson is smart enough to get this: he’s made peace with the media and the experts. But the character question persists. To take the obvious example for TNE readers, last week the EU published its proposals for a UK/EU trade deal, complete with regulatory alignment, a role for EU law and lots of fish with blue UK passports ending up on French plates. As uncompromising in their way as London’s minimalist version, it would have been front page news but for the CV19 drama, BC and AC, as historian Peter Hennessey now proposes to divide our era: Before Corona and After Corona.

The EU has also rejected Rishi Sunak’s call for a June deal on the ‘equivalence’ regime that will give the City’s financial services access to EU markets. You’d think it was business as usual. But the diplomatic hardball takes place as Schengen members close their borders, national governments, not the EU Commission, promise vast sums of financial support and Italy complains – as it did over migrants and the bankers crash – that it is not getting enough EU support to fight its Covid-19 battle. China sent kit and a plane load of doctors. Fellow EU states hoarded their own, struggling to organise collective action via tele-conferencing. With the world in chaos will Boris relax his reckless December deadline for a deal – or let it be forced on him? The UK has already made itself more vulnerable by pulling out of collective agreements on medicines and science, just as Professor Farage wanted. Watch this space.

Totalitarian China’s revised narrative, that the communist party has called the crisis right (Prof Michie thinks so too), may prove premature. But in the conspicuous absence of traditional US leadership, Beijing’s claim plays well and helps tilt prestige and power its way. We will have to live with those consequences too After Corona (AC).

Barely a decade ago a US president was organising concerted action to fight the financial crash. The Fed has done its best this month, but the man in the White House plays a parochial hand badly against what he calls the ‘foreign virus’ seeping largely untested through his country.

In theory, if Trump or Johnson fail to rise to the level of events – and national mortality statistics speak eloquently to that failure – they will be driven from office at the appropriate opportunity. But we live in increasingly abnormal times where history has us in its grip, bewildering and frightening citizens by the pace of startling events. What has begun to worry me in pre-dawn musings is the thought that Donald Trump is precisely the sort of unscrupulous
figure who might use all the powers placed in his hands by the Covid-19 emergency to postpone November’s presidential election – as our Grand National and local elections have been postponed.

Faced with rejection by voters – his performance this past week has been embarrassing – he might then persuade a compliant Republican-heavy Congress and packed Supreme Court to tamper with the US constitution. Fancy talk? Both Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi have recently nobbled their own constitutions to perpetuate their personal rule indefinitely, helped as always by the useful idiots. Germany’s Angela Merkel has legally served four terms and no convincing successor is yet in sight.

In the world crisis of 1940 FDR ran successfully on the slogan ‘Better a third termer than a third rater’ (his Republican opponent) and won again in 1944, only to die of exhaustion within months. The 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms, was passed in 1951 as a result. But ‘Repeal the 22nd’ has been a recurring slogan on the American Right, for Eisenhower, for Reagan, sometimes for Trump who – like Julius Caesar – rejects it. Good Boris and his Good Circle of public-spirited scientists have been on display lately. But Bad Boris’s pirate crew is still lurking the corridors of No.10. What might Boris do with his emergency powers? The character question persists.

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