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How Boris Johnson ended up caught between science and the delusions of Brexit

'Herd Impunity' by Martin Rowson - Credit: Martin Rowson

Believe it or not, I try not to yield too often to the temptation to join the dots between the stance politicians took on Brexit to the ones they now advocate on the appropriate government response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a bit mean, especially to voters in deprived areas who voted Leave in 2016 on the promise that things could only get better and – cruel irony – are among those hardest hit in Boris Johnson’s Vale of Tiers today. Covid is becoming “a disease of the poor and disadvantaged,” says Dr David Nabarro of the WHO.

But the Brexit vanguard just won’t leave us alone. Week in and week out, they draw the dots themselves, much as admirers of Mussolini Trump (“I feel so powerful”) love to attend his maskless rallies while endorsing the super-spreader-in-chief’s advice to conquer Covid by sheer willpower. In the name of law and order they occasionally attempt to kidnap state governors who take a less libertarian view of the pandemic.

Saturday’s Times letters page provided a dotty gem. Of course, I should have resisted it. But then I checked my hunch that all 12 signatories to Viscount Matt Ridley’s call for a Swedish-and-individual-responsibility approach to Covid control are probably pro-Brexit activists too. Bingo! The findings were such fun that we should first address the week’s more serious Brexit and pandemic challenges.

And here the joke immediately sours, because the pull of the Tory party’s ‘libertarian’ wing immediately becomes apparent. Johnson’s aversion to confrontation – rooted in a turbulent family childhood, says his new biographer – manifests itself in his reluctance to stand up to critics with whom he wants to identify. Like a defective compass they keep pulling him off course.

In his Three Tier Commons statement – England only – on Monday (is two hours his longest such ordeal?) and again at his 7pm TV press conference, the PM struck a more emollient tone than usual. I even thought I heard him say “sorry” for slow test turnaround times. What his attack dogs have done on his behalf isn’t working any more. Apparently he wants to reorganise the Number 10 again, despite the towering presence of Dominic Cummings as chief of staff.

Much work is obviously needed because Monday’s outing quickly unravelled. At BoJo’s socially-distanced side in No.10 professor Chris Whitty made it painfully clear that the cabinet’s latest compromises – the Merseyside region going resentfully into Tier Three lockdown – would not be sufficient to flatten the alarming new sombrero without a short national “circuit breaker’’ and other locally-agreed measures.

Some want more preventative lockdown, others less to save a fragile service economy. Cautious Keir Starmer now backs an English circuit breaker. Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh have tightened up.

As for Johnson’s clumsy attempt to enlist Liverpool’s metro mayor, Steve Rotherham, as an ally, that backfired too when Mr Mayor passed the buck straight back: he protested that London is dictating policy as usual. Ministers are finally saying the Covid response should be local and proportional. They want Mayor Steve and other local authority leaders to share the responsibility (and blame) while hoarding the data, the power and the funds in SW1. 

“Where’s the evidence that pubs, not home, causes the spread?” Sefton Central MP, Bill Esterson, asked Boris on Monday. “We must get the R number down,” was as detailed a reply as the (“Get on to the website”) boss can manage without Rishi Sunak at his side. Now even media culture warriors like ‘libertarian’ and professional expat northerner, Rod Liddle, are running away from Johnson. On Sunday Liddle called him “our own lumbering idiot leader”. 

If the revolts of the boffins, mayors and devolved administrations weren’t trouble enough the SAGE minutes of September 21 were published to reveal that only the most permissive of the scientists’ five recommendations – to work from home if possible – was adopted; this at a time when the infection rate was less than half what it is now. Hospital cases are now higher than in the spring. Nightingale wards are preparing to reopen. Scientists, some of whom got it unapologetically wrong in the spring, had a told-you-so field day.

It’s worth repeating like an old-fashioned, stuck record that these decisions are never easy and political leaders have to fine-tune health and economic imperatives. Rishi (“as the PM said”) Sunak is a better politician than Matt Ridley, but he’s just been reminded by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) that taxes will eventually have to rise by £40bn if the Treasury is to avoid losing the public finances. Unemployment as well as lockdown worsens mental ill-health. For every Covid death an unrelated death occurs from lack of treatment.

It’s not just us. Most countries – Sweden and virtuous Germany included – are grappling with similar surge-driven dilemmas and local revolts. Outside virus-hardened East Asia, the northern hemisphere faces a grim winter before the pharmaceutical cavalry arrives (perhaps). It’s not all gloom. Treatments get better every day and a doctor in chaotic Lebanon has trained his drugs-and-guns sniffer dogs to detect Covid-19 with near-total accuracy at Beirut airport. Send for the Battersea Dogs Home cavalry to cheer us up.

But governments in many of those countries have better managed to retain public confidence in their competence and consistency of both policy and clear messaging. Trust is the key and no gimmicky daily TV briefing by my old colleague, Allegra Stratton, can fill that leadership gap, merely deflect some blame on her. No wonder that Deborah Mattinson’s latest BritainThinks survey of 2,000 voters found the country more divided and pessimistic than it was in June. Food banks proliferate, but the Times reports that the affluent may get their Greek half-term breaks.

You won’t be too shocked to hear that BritainThink’s most optimistic cohort are affluent, Conservative-voting men over 65 who voted for Brexit – and probably mix Dettol with their gin-and-cornflakes. But we’ll come back to the Ridley Dozen in a moment. As the cabinet edges towards localised decision-taking, 82 councils have already taken matters into their own hands. They are organising local test-and-tracing systems which seem to work better than Dido Harding’s tottering SW1 version.

It still leaves local leaders and MPs, Tory as well as opposition ‘red wallers’, and moderates like Jeremy Hunt, dissatisfied. They are not consulted, merely informed, sometimes with just 15 minutes Zoom notice. At-risk voters will pick up the phone to a local number (“we know our communities”), but not to Dido’s T & T callers, especially not if they’ve already received 100 calls (or none at all), they say.
Sunak keeps expanding his winter funding package, but councils have been kept short of cash for a decade. Is Rishi’s protracted honeymoon with voters finally ending? Perhaps. All week I have heard the likes of Manchester’s metro mayor, Andy Burnham, a canny operator, saying that cutting furlough pay from 80% to 60% – only for those whose work is stopped by Tier closures – pushes poor families over the edge. 

t would be good to report progress on the Brexit front, where MPs this week voted down Lords amendments on standards on imported food and rejected attempts to protect sustainable fish stocks. Financier turned business minister Lord Agnew offended business by accusing it of having “heads in sand” over export paperwork prep for January 1. But who’s head is really in the sand as the Dover cliff edge looms? Perhaps there is negotiating progress behind the scenery. But it feels like another Groundhog Day where rival headlines pointed to breakthroughs or stalemate ahead of this week’s EU summit in Brussels. Does Merkel’s call for EU “realism” mean Macron will show flexibility on Channel fisheries? It depends which French minister you listen to. 

To make a change from groundhogism, I dived into a different muddy field, namely the vast, unreported slog of adjusting the UK’s post-Brexit network of regulations to the new order. It is done via countless bits of secondary legislation. In this instance I stumbled upon junior health minister, Edward Argar, and his Labour oppo, Justin Madders, amiably trading blows over the – deep breath – Draft European Qualifications (Health and Social Care Professionals) (Efta States) (Amendments etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.

What I think it does is keep open the ability of European professionals from the Efta Four (Norway etc) to work in Britain if they want to, along (separate regulation) with EU27 nationals (and vice versa for ours). Some 9.1% of NHS doctors come from Europe, 6% of nurses, 5.8% of scientists and technicians. Many who work on Covid cures pop up on our media, don’t they? After Brexit  – even before Covid – applications had sharply fallen and there were 100,000 NHS vacancies – 120,000 in social care. 

Yet Argar, a smart young man to watch (they trust him not to mess up on Radio 4’s Today) was required to waste his time attempting to mitigate the risk of worsening the staffing crisis via a policy decision we inflicted on ourselves: Brexit.  Yes, I know that four million EU nationals have applied to stay here and that jobless Brits can be trained up to do all that important work. That’s the theory.

Talking of which, my second foray into the Brexit undergrowth this week was to the grandly-titled Centre for Brexit Policy whose allegedly heavyweight thinkers – Martin Howe QC, Barnabas Reynolds, IDS & Co – try to keep Team Boris’s feet to the flame of ideological purity. The other day they produced a paper called “The EU Deal Unmasked: 12 Reasons Why the UK Will Fail to Get a Canada-Style Deal” (CETA). 

As I have confessed here before, I look forward to such papers because we’re going to get a hard form of Brexit anyway so – as with Covid-19 – I’d feel happier if I thought the folks in charge knew what they are doing. But this short paper is disingenuous, bordering on the puerile. Example? “Canada does not have to give the EU access to its fishing waters under CETA.” And “Canada does not have to apply EU rules on goods in one of its provinces.”

To which the GCSE answers are (a) Canadian fish live quite a long way away, as UK fish do not, even if Priti Patel puts nets across the Channel to snare migrants, fish and oil tankers (b) Canada’s provinces are highly decentralised in ways which might benefit Britain. Besides, none of them is subject to an international peace-keeping treaty. The other 10 reasons aren’t much better and assume no ingenious compromises ahead. Check it out on their website, these supposed eggheads are gagging to cry “Betrayed” at Boris.

Which takes us effortlessly back to that Times letter. In fairness to Lord Ridley, he is an experienced science journalist and author, who must know quite a lot about viruses and their bad habits. That distinguishes him from his co-signatories who may know more than my cat (the one that got run over), but give no hint of it in their CVs.
There again, the 5th Lord R of Blagdon Hall, Northumberland, is an Etonian, a landed hereditary peer whose doctoral thesis at Oxford was on the mating system of the pheasant. Like his father before him, he was also chairman of his local building society, Northern Rock (2004-7), when reckless management prompted the first run on a UK bank since the 1860s. So Matt may not be the best judge of prudential risk after all.

He towers above the other 11. Lords Howard of Rising, Lord Archie Hamilton of Epsom and Lord Cavendish of Furness are also old(er) Etonians, all born in 1941, all the younger scions of great aristocratic houses, though Lord Howard managed to hang on to 17,000 handy acres of North Lancashire. That must be why he became president of the Dry Stone Wall Association of Great Britain. 

Relatively speaking, the 3rd Lord Mancroft is of humbler background, sometime chairman of the Scratch n’ Win Lottery and Joint Master of the Vale of the White Horse Hunt. Lord M is a hunt militant, who helped organise a ‘Vote OK’ slate to promote pro-hunting parliamentary candidates.

Quite unfairly neither woman signatories, Lady (Sheila) Noakes or Baroness (Catherine) Meyer, German-born wife of ex-ambassador Christopher Meyer, went to Eton, though Noakes was once described as Britain’s “highest profile accountant.” Nor are the other five chaps quite top drawer, a mixture of grammar and lesser private school boys, mostly clawing up the social mobility ladder via Oxbridge. 

Lord (Norman) Lamont was John Major’s discarded chancellor at the time of the 1992 sterling crisis. Lord (Peter) Lilley was one of Major’s cabinet Eurosceptic “bastards” while party functionary, Lord (Michael) Dobbs got lucky and wrote House of Cards which made him rich. Lord (Andrew) Robothan, another ex-MP turned Tory peer, was a long-service major in the Coldstream Guards (a stint in the SAS too). He signed up again for the first Gulf War (1991). 

The only name in this apparently gilded list which has clearly experienced serious adversity is Lord (Kevin) Shinkwin. A disability campaigner, himself disabled by brittle bone disease, Shinkwin became a peer in 2015 where he once said abortion is “a licence to kill for the crime of being disabled”. One can acknowledge his perspective without endorsing it.

Where Shinkwin fits the Ridley template is in his fierce intolerant support for Brexit with or without a deal. “The people have spoken,” he once thundered. Lord Cavendish once condemned “spineless defeatism” among those unwilling to take back our “stolen sovereignty”. Lord Hamilton once threatened to “take to the streets” if Brexit were “defeated at all costs” as Lord Robothan put it. Lord Mancroft’s most intemperate recorded remark was not about Brexit at all. He once denounced NHS nurses who had cared for him in hospital at Bath as “grubby, drunken and promiscuous”.

You probably get the picture. When socially insecure Johnson talks of “following the science” and of asking town hall leaders to take their share of responsibility for Covid restrictions he is really splitting the difference between his scientists and his libertarians, deep thinkers like their lordships who expediently embrace a Sweden whose social democratic, high-tax ethos they once so despised. 

More serious scientists and thinkers, ones who are not shielded by 17,000 acres or presided over a bank crash, examine and re-examine the ‘herd immunity’ strategy. On Tuesday night Matt Hancock told angry “libertarian” MPs before 42 Brexit-types rebelled over the Tiers it does not work, will not work except as part of a wider restrictive strategy underpinned by better T&T. It is a false dichotomy simply to posit health against the economy. Fear and mistrust corrode both. The most vulnerable suffer most.

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