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Boris Johnson’s brazen approach will cost us all

Boris Johnson wants to have his cake and eat it. - Credit: Martin Rowson

It’s clear Boris Johnson’s brazen approach will cost us all warns Michael White.

The mighty Oxford English Dictionary has just celebrated the extraordinary nature of 2020 by issuing an unprecedented number of ‘words of the year’ – starting obviously with coronavirus and lockdown. Me, I was less ambitious in looking for words of the week. Mine were reset and truth decay, though the evolving etymology of unintentional is also worth a nod if you are contemplating bullying anyone.

Truth Decay is the easy one. It was coined (I think) as long ago as 2018 for the title of their book of that name by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D Rich, CEO of the Rand Corporation, the US-based public policy research institute. The pair used this month’s election of Joe Biden to repeat their plea for a renewal of trust in American governmental institutions and evidence-based policy. But I clocked it only when Barack Obama deployed the phrase in the round of interviews to promote his memoirs. 

The idea truth decay conveys – of entrenched partisanship that delegitimises inconvenient facts and unwelcome conclusions – has always been there on the fringes of politics, occasionally making a brief, disastrous breakthrough down the ages. More recently Al Gore made a film about climate change – An Inconvenient Truth – after losing the presidential race in 2000. But social media has proved a super spreader of fake facts in the intervening decades.

It has a bearing on my other two words. The week past was, of course, the declared week of Boris Johnson’s administrative reset after the stormy departure from Downing St of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, Blackadder and Baldrick of the Vote Leave campaign to whom the PM seems to have outsourced so much of his political thinking. 

By the week’s end World King Boris was again stuck in mud of his own making over Priti Patel “unintentional bullying” and his “unintentional” mishandling of it. The uproar didn’t make his task any easier in delivering Monday’s reset of the pandemic lockdown – regional variations on familiar lines, I fear, and the hospitality sector in intensive care again, despite heroic efforts to be Covid-compliant. 

Greater flexibility is always good, especially if the public is still listening. Everyone has this problem. But when Boris promised in the summer that it would all be over by Christmas, I put away my stocking. No wonder No.10’s audio-feed to Westminster broke during Monday’s session. Sheer embarrassment after he pledged – yet again – that we’ve “turned a corner”.

If you recall, chaotic Boris had managed to get himself self-isolating after socially-not-distancing with red wall Tory MPs (I misheard him saying he’d “been contacted by traitors”, when it was actually “tracers”). That helped knock the government’s own reset off its stride before it started. Nonetheless the Green Recovery was launched to both acclaim and alarm: ambitious, but less than claimed, a step in the right direction.

So was the £16 billion boost to defence spending, brought forward to give Boris something manly to talk about to please supporters of the red, as well as white and blue kind, in Johnson’s creaking north-south coalition. Some of these ambitious goals should be made to stick. Those Rolls-Royce mini-nuclear power stations are back in favour, I see. Clean, renewable energy, digital industries of the future and upgraded defence capabilities, all would be good news for renewed growth and prosperity on Forth and Mersey, Tyne and Teesside. Sustainable growth is key to the future.

But when an FT headline proclaims “UK bets on space race against Musk” I worry that it may be more pie-in-Boris’-sky. In partnership with Indian billionaire  Sunil Bharti Mittal ministers propose to invest $500 million in the failed OneWeb start-up seeking to launch a low-orbiting, global satellite constellation. That would create an internet/navigation alternative to GPS (US) and the EU’s Galileo rival, the one from which Britain was excluded after Brexit, despite blithe assurances that this wouldn’t happen.

That sounds a lot, but $500 million is a tenth of what Theresa May promised in 2018, an admission – oh, the irony – that the UK can’t afford its own, sovereign system. Who knew, Boris! You did, dear reader. The OneWeb project has been criticised by MPs, officials and (what do they know?) by the UK Space Agency, so it’s a punt of the kind that post-imperial Britain has too often failed to deliver for 50 years.

There are lots of things we still do well, including cutting edge pharmaceutical research. Take a bow for your Covid-19 vaccine, Oxford-AstraZeneca. It was No.3 in declaring a successful outcome, not as efficacious but potentially cheaper and more useful than No.1 and 2. Excellent and a boon for humankind, though the firm’s share price dipped. 

Such high tech successes – we never say “picking winners” any more – points to an industrial strategy that requires hard-headed realism and robust cost-benefit analysis, underpinned by long-term ‘patient capital’. None of these are qualities associated with Boris Johnson’s life or career, zip wires, trendy buses, water cannon or garden bridges. Patience, commitment, realism – no, don’t think so. Chumocracy too often beats meritocracy now.

Even before Rishi Sunak got to his feet on Wednesday to deliver his spending review – the most important of his six statements since March – there were signs that No.10’s signature dish – Boris both having its cake and eating it – is still on Whitehall’s menu. The chancellor promised more money for schools and the police, this on top of this month’s latest NHS boost – and that £16 billion cheque for defence. Hurrah!

In doing so he was also flagging up even tighter budgets for ‘unprotected’ areas like foreign aid, and public sector workers now again facing a near-pay-freeze. The buckling justice system – where “leftie lawyers” run amok in columnist Boris’s imagination – will also be further corroded. As a senior judge points out, it is the innocent accused who suffer. The guilty don’t care either way.

But with public borrowing well north of £300 billion and public spending 60% of GDP, (itself 10% lower than last year) we are being spared the full horrors of Sunak’s “economic shock” for now. “We will not be responding to this crisis with what some people call austerity,” says Boris the Cake Eater. So those painful tax rises which are unavoidable to a government committed to levelling up public investment will be postponed until next year. Who know, something may turn up for Cake Eater Micawber.

In 2021 plenty will turn up, but it is unlikely to be more than we can already guess. Vaccines will see the tide of Covid-19 recede to reveal the jagged rocks of debt and unavoidable economic damage (even the Swedes are retreating from their ‘libertarian’ version of lockdown) at the foot of the Brexit cliff. Through swirling fog the lighthouse of accountability shines its harsh beam on Johnson’s government.

Italian nostalgics used to say of Mussolini that “at least he made the trains run on time”. He didn’t, but few felt brave enough to point out that the Duce was both boastful and incompetent. Johnson isn’t Mussolini though – as a wise man predicted 20 years ago – he is a cut-price Berlusconi, vain and venal, a lecher with a light and lazy touch. We are still able to criticise him – and do, though less than he deserves while the Tory press stays loyal in a Mitch McConnell way.

How many papers, TV and radio channels, seriously pursue the trail of contracts, alleged to have been awarded at speed and in secrecy to friends, donors and associates of MPs, their companies often said to be ill-suited to produce PPE or test-and-trace delivery systems? Not many. The Times, the Guardian and Observer, the Sunday Times, occasionally the BBC, FT and Mail. To add insult to injury the private outsourcers preferred instead of the NHS and university networks have got away with calling it “NHS Test and Trace”. NHS is a more trusted brand than Serco.

Then there was the nine-month delay of the intelligence report into allegations of Poisoner Putin’s commercial and soft power penetration of British power circles. And tech trainer Jennifer Arcuri’s access to public funds. It will all come out eventually, just as Donald Trump’s misdeeds will be laid bare now that he is slowly conceding defeat on November 3. So will details of Priti Patel’s misconduct.

In Johnson’s miscast reset week it took leaks from Whitehall to bring to a head the home secretary’s ill-treatment of civil servants. Contained in the old-school diligence of Sir Alex Allan’s report, the issue festered in Boris’s in-tray for seven months. When cornered, his instinct for short-term self-preservation overruled Allan, who resigned after refusing to water down his findings. Shabby stuff.

I don’t rate Pushy Patel whom I’ve known since she was a Tory press officer, later with the Referendum Party. She’s ambitiously unscrupulous enough to be a dangerous home secretary, fortunately not talented enough to be very dangerous. The Sunday Times reports that No.10 now concurs. Her failure to tackle illegal Channel crossings may see Kit Malthouse, a Boris minder at City Hall, promoted to try harder. There’s loyalty for you.

Some of Patel’s defenders say she’s a victim of sexism and racism (would they have made that excuse for Diane Abbott?) who faced pushback by incompetent (“f***ing incompetent”) officials. They blocked her wilder ideas or – worse – leaked them. Certainly no one bothered to warn the boss that her “unreserved, fulsome apology” for any offence taken was badly phrased. ‘Fulsome’ actually means false, so it really was appropriate, but unintentionally so – in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

But the home secretary’s critics should pause and remember that many ministers bully their staff and get their perm sec replaced. In his desperate insecurity Gordon Brown famously cussed and threw mobile phones all over the place. Cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, had to take himself aside and warn him not to shout at junior officials. Yet Brown stayed in post until the election. So best not to throw stones too large or too hard at Patel. She will fall for other reasons. 

That said, this government breaks and bends the rules more than most, not always in “limited and specific” ways either. It invites obvious comparison with the wilful indifference to the US constitution shown by Donald Trump and his henchfolk, by authoritarians everywhere. Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu meets Saudi’s even grislier Prince MbS in secret – but both deny it. What a tawdry carve-up.

Nearer home the EU fights a “rule-of-law” battle over the pandemic recovery package with its Polish-Hungarian authoritarians. The sanctions, mostly financial ones to curb corruption, not to uphold plural democracy, are more symbolic than substantial. But they matter to both sides. Will Joe Biden’s presidency nudge the mood back towards a rules-based system? 

Brexit champion, John Redwood – briefly Welsh secretary 30 years ago – sneeringly sees Biden “rejoining the world’s orthodoxies”. It won’t be easy, too much has been lost or damaged, but it would be encouraging. But rules and orthodoxy aren’t the Johnson way, quite the reverse. His apologists explain that voters know he’s a rogue and have priced it in.

Except that his rule-breaking doesn’t deliver. Not on Covid and our “jolly careful Christmas”, not on Brexit. The moment of truth is at hand. David Frost’s talks with Michel Barnier intensify. Like the Greek philosopher Zeno’s famous arrow, the deadline is always in flight, but never quite arrives. MEPs, we are now told, will vote on a deal online on December 28 – if there is one. 

Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, warns that the long-term economic consequences of no-deal will be worse than those of Covid. Remember an “Australian deal” sounds cosy but it’s really an “Afghan deal” too. A deal would hit UK output by 4.9% over 15 years, say official studies, no-deal by 7.7%. Truth decay campaigners will struggle to swamp that unintended consequence by blaming Covid-19.

Yet Rishi Sunak goes through the motions of telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr that London would prefer no-deal to a bad one. When YouGov reports that support for Brexit is now 38% (51% think it a mistake) everyone suspects he’s bluffing, but can’t quite be sure. Newspapers report ingenious schemes for squaring circles over state aid and fishing rights – both inherently absurd when we consider how much state aid has flowed during the pandemic (Germany to the fore) and how little fish matter (0.1%) to the bigger economic picture.

What this is really about is leverage for future, near-permanent, negotiations ahead and policing of UK’s “level playing field” alignment to EU regulatory standards.

Frost offers a one-year deal on fish, possibly with a three-year transition for EU fisherfolk to ease the pain. Legislation to “take back control” of British fish took effect this week. Not that we have the boats to catch them anyway. Outside the port towns it is mostly about face-saving pride to appease English nationalism.

Brussels suggests a 10-year fish review in 2030 tied to a wider examination of how road haulage, electricity trade and the like are working – and Global Britain’s hand will (they suspect) be that much weaker. The Brits tell the Sun they don’t like 2030 talk and look dreamily towards a realignment to the fast-growing Asia-Pacific zone, which British naval power and Indian army once dominated. I suspect Carrie didn’t let Boris watch ITV’s version of The Singapore Grip. Clue: it ends badly, PM. We surrender.

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