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The febrile summer that lies ahead for Britain

Not drowning but second waving. Picture: Martin Rowson/TNE - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the week lockdown started to lift and revealed danger to come.

Just as the Minneapolis riots over the death of handcuffed George Floyd were starting to spread to other American cities one of our own newspapers reported relieved surprise among the experts that our own Covid-19 inspired lockdown had not generated civil disorder and looting here too. ‘Let’s not tempt fate,’ I muttered. The easing of official restrictions, combined with rising unemployment and unseasonal weather, may make the next few weeks more turbulent than those just past. Especially so if a second pandemic wave – the Cummings Wave – prompts renewed efforts to thwart the pent-up partying instincts of the young, whose prospects have been disproportionately damaged by the pandemic.

Media around the world has a very human habit of looking at other countries’ misfortunes and reassuring their audiences that ‘it doesn’t happen here’, despite everyone knowing that gilets jaunes and riot police pop up everywhere. Even the clerical kleptocracy of Iran and the market-Stalinists who hold sway over China joined the tut-tutting over the latest outburst of urban mayhem in the US. It took our own media five days to remember that we too have police brutality and opportunity looting. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 was far bloodier than has ever been admitted. Instead it’s disappeared from Chinese websites.

The latest US riots have been judged by many Americans the worst since Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, certainly worse than any British disturbances in recent times, including the recession riots of 1981. The poll tax riots (1990) looked pretty serious on US TV – I watched them from there – but, except for Mrs Thatcher (she lost her job), were much less serious than the ‘Tottenham riots’ of August 2011. Lasting six nights, after the police shooting of Mark Duggan, they spread across the capital – to quiet Ealing even – and other major cities. Five people died and 3,000 were arrested. Nearly 50,000 businesses were damaged at a cost of £200 million.

The then-mayor of London, one Boris Johnson, was a bit late in getting home from a family holiday in the Canadian Rockies. Gallantry, not idleness, we were assured last week; apparently the Winnebago he had rented was too big for his wife to drive. No such excuse justified the mayor’s subsequent purchase of three just-in-case German water cannon which were banned by the home secretary (a Mrs May), later sold at a loss of £300,000. Typical Johnsonian extravagance, flamboyant and useless, critics noted.

In hard times we should try to look on the bright side. In 2020, Nissan’s global retrenchment will close its factory in Spain, but the carmaker has just said it will keep open its highly-efficient plant in Sunderland – provided there’s an EU deal. Excellent, because the north east has been badly hit by the impact of Covid-19 on pre-existing poverty and ill-health. By the same token, we can take comfort from remembering that the 2011 riots were followed the following summer by a successful London Olympics for which mayor Johnson is still claiming more credit than he deserves. At least he hasn’t boasted than Nissan’s decision is a tribute to Brexit.

It is easy to imagine how Britain might experience civil unrest this summer. The core ingredients of poverty, anger and social division, are visible. Smouldering grievances, reinforced by a tendency in parts of the media to discount the excesses which predictably latch on to peaceful protest, can be ignited by a spark. The ‘liberal cringe’ one detects in some BBC interviewers enrages the other side of the cultural divide. It gives the likes of Donald Trump – who’d have guessed? – the opportunity to polarise and provoke. ‘Domestic terrorism’ talk is easy, but deployment of federal troops on American streets may not be so easily reversed. Ask Belfast. But most people prefer security over liberty – and justice – even when burning streets are not their own. Nixon won in ’68.

Which way would Boris’ instincts lead him if a storm broke? Would he buy back those water cannon knowing that Priti ‘Quarantine’ Patel wouldn’t ban their use this time? And that law-and-order supporters would cheer? Or would his aversion to conflict seek to appease his opponents? Many of them would likely be angry ‘red wall’ voters whose furloughs have been followed by a P45, perhaps by renewed lockdown as coronavirus laxity produces the renewed surge. History tells us a second wave would be bad for battered morale and a fragile economy.

The old Boris did not hesitate to deploy the weapons of culture war against the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ over Brexit, against the ‘nanny state’ for interfering with his God-given right to be 5ft 9in tall and weigh 17st 7lb. Dominic Cummings – still in post as I type – is known to be an admirer of the cynical Bismarck, who deployed Kulturkampf against the Catholic church and liberals to help consolidate his new Second Reich after 1870. He also wooed red wall workers by creating the world’s first welfare state. The fact that it all ended in death and destruction might not trouble Dom: it worked in theory at the time.

The Mail reported mid-week that – solely on his own initiative – Dom briefed the ’14 days quarantine for arrivals’ plan to the Times on March 8 because he needed a ‘dead cat’ distraction from a Guardian analysis of the growing care home crisis. The boy genius thought it would be popular. That went well, Dom. Worth a sacking?

There are positive opportunities here for Johnson if he has the energy and wisdom to take them. The past three months have pitted high profile epidemiological science and other disciplines like behavioural theory against each other and the practical constraints of politics, whose blame-averse leaders claim to be ‘following the science’ when it’s more like a negotiation. Economics has had to take a back seat and quietly write cheques for rookie chancellor Sunak to sign.

But now that the CV-19 infection rate is dropping the ever-emollient Sunak is restored to the front passenger seat where he can control Boris’s Winnebago satnav. As plenty of dismayed experts have made plain, this week’s gradual re-opening of classrooms, IKEA and sporting fixtures – not to mention jam-packed Durdle Door beach – is not dictated by science. Its confidence is still troubled by a persistently high R number and the fragility of testing and tracing, despite ‘world-beating’ claims. Ministers stand accused of exaggerating test rates. Chris Witty reportedly resisted Boris’ pressure to cut the alert level from four to three.

Such desperation is driven by Treasury alarm and political pressure from libertarians who haven’t yet been on a ventilator. Hence Sunak’s decision to require employers to contribute 5% to the £8 billion cost of furlough pay from the autumn. It prompted immediate predictions that it will bankrupt thousands of companies and may push two million people – mostly in low-paid or insecure jobs – out of their ‘hidden unemployment’. This economy is changed forever.

Patel’s (Dom’s?) half-baked quarantine plans – is it still 14 days self isolation for all arrivals except from Ireland? – further enrage business. The tourism, hospitality and arts sectors are in despair. Churches are offended that they’re still closed. Tabloids are demanding one metre social distancing. Expert opinion disagrees. At Durdle Door a swathe of public opinion has settled for two centimetres and suicidal leaps off its 200ft cliff – the ‘Dom Dive’, as it may become known.

The free-spending, good-time populist in Johnson, the Boris of buses, garden bridges and zip wires to nowhere, would surely relish a financial splurge justified by the scale of the economic challenge ahead. He could leave someone else to clean it up, probably over decades. A surprising number of reputable economists argue that £100bn of extra borrowing – the pandemic costs so far – can safely be packaged up in long-term, low interest bonds like war debt. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

It’s hard now to recall that Before Covid (BC) Johnson’s post-austerity cabinet was committed to ‘levelling up’ those left-behind regions with better infrastructure, new skills and new industries, as if it had never been tried – repeatedly – for years. The challenges remain, but more urgently. How do ministers do more to boost the latest ‘lost generation’ to emerge from school or university with suddenly-worse prospects? How much should the old, those who can afford it, pay in reduced services and higher taxes to help fund recovery? Should ministers protect ‘old’ jobs or steer workers towards new industries – whatever they turn out to be?

In the light of greater success in tackling Covid achieved by devolved governments in places like Germany, should the UK regions and metro-city mayors get the power and money to take the lead? Or was Germany’s success attributable to speed, competence and public trust, much as it was in centralised Taiwan and South Korea?

To my surprise this week I even clocked a rare endorsement from the veteran free market think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) for that favoured left-wing concept of a universal basic income (UBI), one recently dusted off by Compass, an anti-Blairite think tank. It’s essentially what furlough is providing, less complex and unfair than Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit. No more intrusive, expensive and dehumanising means-testing, eh? Instead the state guarantees an income floor, not a ceiling.

No, I don’t expect UBI to happen. Core problems of cost and disincentive to work can’t easily be solved. But it reminds us that a crisis – most obviously war – can make the once unthinkable happen – and quickly. Remember how the First World War emancipated women. It may be the same for the way we organise car-dominated cities that pollute the planet, how we commute to work after a WFH experience shared by billions, how we produce food…

Analysists as weighty as the renowned polymath Jared Diamond and Henry Kissinger wonder how many of our institutions will survive a crisis which some have obviously failed. An ‘extinction event’ for institutions, as someone else put it? Or can they learn from Covid to cooperate better on even bigger threats: climate change, dwindling planetary resources – notably soil and water – destabilising inequality.

Even to frame the question is to highlight Team Johnson’s obvious inadequacy. This week seven ex-foreign secretaries wrote to Dominc Raab urging a more robust and coordinated response to China’s threat to the Sino-British agreement on the future of Hong Kong. Ex-PMs Major, Blair and Brown have joined calls for the absent G20 to take a lead role in fighting Covid-19 and beyond. When Angela Merkel decided against attending the US-led session of the G7 on pandemic grounds, Dettol Don cancelled the already-postponed event and casually suggested inviting Russia, Mexico and India next time. He removed the US from WHO.

Yes, international steps have been taken over Hong Kong and Covid coordination. They just feel ritualistic, reflexes of a fading order whose unofficial convenor since 1945 – the president of the United States – has gone rogue, a Tweeter-in-Chief no longer taken seriously by the grown-ups. Threatening loss of legal protection for Twitter and other social media platforms which challenge (but do not censor) his diatribes may actually be the right way to go. But Trump’s action was pique, not policy.

Is Boris much better? Stop winging it,’ says Keir Starmer. The Cummings affair exposed the PM’s craven dependency on his over-mighty adviser. The voters have registered their disapproval of the Domni-shambles with pollsters as unfinished business. Some pitiful, loyalist columns urge us all to move on when the choice isn’t binary: we can do both, just as we can chide Emily Maitlis on the BBC’s Newsnight while noting that it may be another of Dom’s ‘dead cat’ diversions.

This week ‘friends of Dom’ revealed that their man will be gone in six months, once Brexit is finally done and dusted on New Year’s Eve without a further extension – perhaps without a trade deal either. The Covid rubble will bury the Brexit corpse, goes the theory. We’ve heard versions of this before. Remember how the UK would hold all the negotiating cards?

The implication adds to Johnson’s humiliation. The Cummings who despises everyone else despises Boris too. Watching him bend with the breeze on the NHS, on Huawei’s 5G contract and much else, Dom fears that the PM will waver on that Brexit extension if he is not there. He’s right. Alas, this insight emboldens other heresies to surface in the Tory press, even briefly. When Johnson loyalist, Danny Kruger MP, protested that attacks on Dom amount to a vote of no confidence in Boris, Tory pundit Alex Massie said: ‘Precisely.’

Writing for the Spectator, Johnson’s former fiefdom, the Scottish columnist declared that, even allowing for a slow recovery from Covid-19, it is obvious that Boris ‘is not up to the job’. His scratchy performance before the Commons liaison committee confirmed that he is ‘painfully out of his depth.’ No PM should be so wholly dependent on one adviser. ‘If Boris Johnson cannot function without Cummings, he is not qualified to be PM,’ wrote Massie.

Such a verdict will hardly shock TNE readers. But this appeared in the Spectator. Almost as remarkable to me was the failure of Dominic Lawson, another ex-Spectator editor, to write a word about the Domni-shambles in any of the four columns penned since it broke. It suggests he will not perjure himself for Boris. Remember the Tory party’s secret weapon is not loyalty, as sentimentally asserted in my youth. It is disloyalty: if they fail, throw them overboard. That’s what feeble Boris should have done to Dom, but didn’t.

The ‘Call my Bluff’ negotiations with Brussels continue this week. Some Brexit champions have persuaded themselves that in seeking to curb the ECB’s bond buying programme, Germany’s constitutional court has done the judicial equivalent of Brexit by defying the European Court of Justice. The German judges are said to be rowing back as Brussels, Paris and Berlin plot countermoves. What is striking is the Lawson-esque silence that has descended on what is potentially another extinction event, one that could harm us all. As they used to say in the movies, ‘I don’t like it, Carruthers, it’s too damn quiet out there’.

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