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Creep shifts shape again – but time is running out for Boris Johnson

Illustration by Martin Rowson. - Credit: The New European

As Boris Johnson attempts a pivot to Joe Biden his time is running out.

It may be time to dig out that line of Kipling in which the imperial poet, almost certainly an instinctive Brexiteer, tells us all to beware “those two imposters”, triumph and disaster. Yes, it looks as if an effective Covid-19 vaccine may finally be at hand, developed in a lab founded by a married pair of Turkish-German scientists, backed by US Pfizer.  A global solution to a global pandemic with Oxford-AstraZeneca not far behind. But it isn’t over yet and the Covid-19 mutation found in those infected Danish mink sound worrying.

Yes too, that in our other existential crisis the House of Lords rejected Boris Johnson’s “specific and limited” breach of international law – by a thumping 433 votes to 165. But no, ministers have not budged a British inch over the Northern Ireland protocol and intend to reinstate the offending clauses in the vassal Commons. Michel Barnier’s trade negotiations with David Frost continue, stretching their elastic deadline ever tighter. With no reported sign of a breakthrough it could still go horribly wrong.

On the positive side, yes again. Joe Biden has won the US presidency and consistently struck the right tone. But a brooding Donald Trump stalks his ascent to power, backed by a dwindling but dangerous crew of accomplices and 70 million voters, three-quarters of whom apparently feel “we wuz robbed” as strongly as Remainers did in 2016. President-elect Biden rightly urges reconciliation – “our opponents are not our enemies” – but tactfully refrains from reminding his jubilant supporters that this process requires a degree of mutual respect too.

As the populists’ twin victories – Brexit and Trump – showed in 2016, so do their twin defeats in 2020. Trump’s imminent eviction and Boris Johnson’s repeated humiliations in office  serve to underline how intolerant society’s divisions have become. In real life the other side isn’t always wrong about everything. Hollow nationalism and cynical culture warfare may not be the answer, but the grievances of millions who feel left behind and disrespected demand attention.

In full retreat on the same news bulletins as Pfizer-BioNTech’s miracle, the BBC’s complicity in whatever it was Martin Bashir did or didn’t do to get that destructive 1995 interview with Princess Di should sound alarm bells among its liberal admirers. No excuses please, unless the Beeb comes up with better answers than it has so far at a perilous moment when its own reputation and finances are under sustained attack. Beeb-bashing is not all ideological spite.

I’m increasingly hopeful that the institutions of the American republic will hold at bay the dark forces president Trump is clearly tempted to invoke, illegal threats to impose his version of the law. He does indeed have the right to go to court, but – like Johnson’s conspicuous failure to produce solid evidence of the EU’s “bad faith” at the negotiating table – courts require proof, even conservative courts. Trump is no conservative, less so than Washington-insider Biden in respectable ways.

That’s how history often works: with slow unpredictability. Bashir’s alleged sharp practice comes back to bite the BBC in 2020. Did Margaret Thatcher mean her 1988 Bruges speech to sever Britain from the European single market and customs union she did much to create, as well as from the EU’s political framework? Were John Major’s concessions on the single currency and Schengen borders at Maastricht in 1992 fatal to British membership, despite his famous opt-outs?

On a more topical November note what part was played by the rituals of Remembrance Sunday and Vera Lynn nostalgia for a rose-tinted past? BBC suits of the day mishandled the forces sweetheart too. In 1942 they took her Sincerely Yours programme off the wireless (sic) because the future Dame Vera – who knew her own mind – insisted on picking sentimental songs. The suits feared they would sap morale among troops longing for home and loved ones. Did anyone say elitism?

That’s a Brexiteers’ point too I’m afraid, one I’m happy to make in a Biden spirit of reconciliation. I’d do the same for Donald Trump’s achievements in office, Boris’s too. But that’s much harder. It’s been striking how hard conservative analysts have struggled to make a case for Trump’s record in office: a stock market boom, more jobs, even slightly better rates for some unskilled workers, but paid for by a debt mountain which tax cuts for the rich won’t resolve. Nor will all those repatriated profits, long held offshore by big tech and banks. Much of the cash inflow has been invested in share buy-backs and mergers, not in productive capacity in Rust Belt states. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, voters noticed. For all the glib talk of “red wall voters” remaking the Republicans as “the party of the working class” – shades of Johnson’s red wall boasts – MAGA bombast and culture warfare are a poor substitute for good jobs and secure health care. That applies in Bradford and Burnley too.

Foreign policy? They say Trump squared up to China. Yes, but erratically and without much effect. His son-in-law  “brokered peace in the Middle East”. Oh really? Turkey, Syria, Palestine and the Gulf Arabs, all happy families? North Korea? Don’t ask. He forced Nato allies to contribute more? Oh, come off it. Not enough to offset the damage done to the alliance and to other multilateral bodies, the WHO and – are you clocking this, Boris ? – WTO on whose fragile rules a deal-less UK would rest its trade hopes. Trump has just blocked appointment of a new director-general (and it wasn’t Liam Fox). 

As for the PM it was bad luck that Monday’s vaccine press conference came on the news channels just after president-elect Biden had announced his pandemic task force and gently renewed his appeal to all Americans to wear a mask – “it’s not a political statement”. It wasn’t stirring stuff, but it was calm after a protracted storm and evidently sincere, as Boris struggles convincingly to be, even when urging us all not to relax our Covid behaviour.

Doubly unlucky actually, since Johnson was flanked by an army brigadier in camouflage kit (a glimpse always excites Fleet Street’s armchair Brexit brigadiers)  and by Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, whose grandfather was briefly prime minister of Vietnam – not everyone knows this – towards the bloody end of French colonial rule in the 1950s.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, got a kicking last week for promoting a SAGE slide that predicted up to 4,000 daily deaths if there was no lockdown. A mistake based on discredited modelling, it seems. These experts, eh. His medical sidekick, Professor Chris Whitty, won a backstairs battle with Boris’s blind sage, Dominic Cummings, to prevent him halving quarantine times. Good. But neither was in view on Monday. Instead the reliably genial Jonathan was mocked by the media for excessive resort to analogies. 

Myself, I thought the one about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine being like a penalty shoot-out where the first goal shows how the keeper can be beaten was suitably vivid – and evidently came from a football fan. Seeing the distant lights of the oncoming train when waiting on a dark and wet platform was also better than most of Boris’ improvised attempts at humour. Even when the train arrives the guard must first check the doors and then let the vulnerable passengers on first, said JVT. Lovely.

Of course, the PM has too much on his desk to allow him time to polish his jokes, though his inability to make decent spontaneous ones these days is a surprise. He hasn’t “got Brexit done” – obviously – and his options are closing in. No.10 has forced Rishi Sunak to extend corporate reliefs and the 80% furlough subsidy until March. Itself revealing, despite Johnson’s attempts to keep a “normal Christmas” in play, it squares with the science.

The Pfizer-BioNTech jab and others coming down JVT’s track will be in short supply, some in two stages, some requiring storage at minus-70 degrees. It will take until Easter to get on top of it with GPs involvement – at last. Plenty there that could go wrong and a wider conversation is needed. It’s easy to prioritise the elderly and frontline workers, but what about vulnerable prisoners and the homeless? What about take-up rates, anti-vaxxers and the new group of 50 anti-lockdown Tory MPs? At least ministers are starting to under-promise a bit. Let’s hope they over-deliver.

The financial cost is eye-watering and, while few dispute the necessity of protecting business and jobs as well as lives, plenty wonder how best to pay for it, how bad the economic equivalent of long Covid will be – especially when Brexit creates huge parallel uncertainties. The National Audit Office (NAO) confirms there will be “significant disruption” to trade on January 1 – with or without a Barnier deal. In the event of one, grumpy MEPs and EU national parliaments may have to be recalled to ratify it just before Christmas. Or not.

“It’s not just Covid and Brexit,” as one of a series of hostile articles in the pro-Brexit Sunday Times put it. Business leaders are angry and alarmed at the government’s failure to tackle promised reform of business rates, the scrapping of VAT rebates for non-EU (ie Asian) tourists, the U-turn on corporation tax cuts, dither over energy policy and infrastructure plans, the survival of a “nonentity” like Alok Sharma in the key post of business secretary. Ministers, wrote Oliver Shah, seem keen to “alienate bosses and entrepreneurs.”

It’s hardly surprising that inexperienced ministers struggle to keep up, nor that inexperienced backbench MPs struggle to hold them effectively to account. Reading Hansard on Sunak’s latest mini-budget (no real one this year and the three-year expenditure plan has been dropped) I was struck by the fact that, apart from Sajid Javid’s brief tenure, there is not a single ex-chancellor or senior economic minister left to challenge him with authority. It didn’t used to be like this.

Retired, purged or gone to the Lords, most of them. One of them, Brexit’s Michael Howard was among vocal critics of the dodgy illegalities baked into the Internal Market Bill, the clauses that allow ministers to overrule the Northern Ireland Protocol signed just a year ago, in theory only if the Barnier talks fail. Monday’s fifth day of the Lords committee stage examination of the bill (and 433-165 vote) covered much the same ground as the Second Reading bill reported here last month.

But I had not previously realised that the contentious Part V of the bill will also give Johnson’s vassal ministers – most routinely cowed by Team Cummings – to override domestic legislation as well as that international treaty. Wow! This isn’t normal, protested a motley posse of lawyers, bishops and suitably outraged peers. Lord Howard said he wanted an “independent sovereign Britain,’’ but one which obeys the law. Lord Ken Clarke called Part V a “A Trump-like gesture”.

There are also the opportunity costs of ministers and officials, peers and MPs spending so much time on the consequentials of Brexit and Covid. By chance my Hansard monitoring also stumbled on the continuing travails of Edward Argar, the junior health minister, whom we encountered aligning UK-EU medicines regulation here this month. Last week he sparred with Alex Norris, Labour’s public health spokesman, over blood, human tissue for organ transplants, sperm, cells etc.

Why? Because EU regulatory regimes now being repatriated to Lord Howard’s independent sovereign country need to be tweaked to allow such delicate spare parts to be moved between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, which will remain inside the EU single market to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. Crazy? I think so, and only a dozen such transfers take place in the average year. But, as one of them said, that can be a matter of life or death to a dozen families.

Little wonder then that over-stretched ministers and Team Cummings – departmental special advisers are now under his direct control – easily resort to outsourcing all sorts of work to expensive outside management consultants and even think tanks, though some are funded by vested interests. Little wonder too that Cummings is apparently toying with the idea of setting up a ‘Crown Consulting’ team to bring such work back in-house and save Whitehall high fees.

Might that be effective if they can attract the talent and pay them enough to tempt them from McKinsey or PWC without hiring the sort of weirdos and misfits that Dom asked for? It’s a tall order. The big private firms already have regional networks and quality control in place and it won’t raise civil service morale. 

Kate Bingham, the private equity health investor brought into to run England’s vaccine programme, is being credited by some with landing those 40 million Pfizer-BioNTech jabs – enough for 20 million Britons. If so, it may mitigate criticism of her performance, her outsourced PR operation and the suggestions that when she leaves government at Christmas she may benefit mightily from government-backed investments in her firm.

We can probably live with that if the multiple vaccine trains heading towards the Van-Tam platform eventually arrive and do so faster than Southern Rail, and if there is greater transparency of procedure. The absence of published data guiding government policy has dogged Brexit for four years and the pandemic crisis for almost one. Boris Johnson is not trusted enough to be taken at his wavering word and, when Donald Trump finally departs the stage, president Biden’s more wholesome approach to government should weaken “Trump clone” populists around the world.

We know that Boris has had a Brexit phone call with EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, though whether he got beyond evasive pleasantries has not been vouchsafed to us. On Tuesday night we heard he managed to get 20 minutes with Biden – phew, what a relief, PM. Being the “shape-shifting creep” (in the words of former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor) that Team Biden detects, the ex-clone managed to rattle up next year’s UK G7 summit and NATO, climate change, “build back better” and other overlapping positions which may have had Not-So-Sleepy-Joe’s eyes rolling.

Institutional relationships matter as well as the personal chemistry which drew Reagan to Thatcher and Trump to Boris, Farage and Putin. Blair to all of them. Biden also spoke to Merkel, Macron and Taoiseach Micheal Martin, who will all have told this Catholic descendant of Irish migrants similar things about Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement. Even a notorious shift shaper as Johnson will struggle harder to square the EU and US trade circles now. Columnist Boris was flippant about Obama’s Kenyan heritage. Let’s hope there are no Famine jokes on file. History works with slow unpredictability.

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