Did you notice Boris Johnson raising those careworn eyes towards the wider world horizon in the past few days? Not once but twice. First, to promise a generous £340 million UK contribution to the embattled World Health Organisation despite it being Public Enemy No 208 to his comrade-in-expediency, Tax Dodger Trump. Second, to pledge Britain – actually only England – to conserve more woodland in line with a global leaders initiative.
In a week when the global tally from Covid-19 passed one million recorded deaths, offering support for international cooperation via UN agencies is mildly good stuff, always provided he means to follow through and actually do something about it. Reports of a quick, cheap and efficient Covid antigen test, sponsored by the WHO, the European Commission, the French government and the Gates Foundation would also represent a victory over populist nationalism for science and cooperation. Where were we?
In the past four fraught and introspective years we’ve become used to the idea of Britain punching below its weight in world affairs. So much that Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to fill the moral, Trump-vacated void in Western leadership – in Beirut or Belarus – barely excites comment in our more parochial media. Did Fleet Street suggest that our man might get on a plane or podium and do some heavy European lifting too, as pre-Brexit PMs often did? If so, I missed it, but they’ve noticed the silence in Hong Kong.
Alas, these shafts of wholesome UN sunshine rarely last. About the time Johnson was promising to restore 30% of Britain to nature by 2030 (surely, the pandemic might do that?) I was dialling into a Teams App briefing at the cerebral Institute for Government. Here assorted working-from-home experts were gently poking holes in the breezily-misplaced optimism which Michael Gove personifies. He does so as chair of the cabinet’s EU Exit Operations Committee (XO) handling the practicalities of trading with the EU27 after transition ends on January 1 – now less than 100 days away.
Lorry passports to prevent stuck trucks from entering Kent from nearby counties? Fear not. Ministers have just taken arbitrary powers to build 29 further lorry parks without the need of local authority approval if the four now under construction prove insufficient. And no, it’s not true that the one in Ebbsfleet, Kent, displaced a Covid-19 testing centre. It was moving anyway, Govey assured MPs last week. An inconvenient Saxon wall unearthed on the Ashford site? Untrue too. So stand down, TV’s Alice Roberts!
A ‘red wall’ was definitely excavated during December’s election. New Tory MPs from the English Midlands and north, remain happy to trot out “independent sovereign country” as if it was a Get-Out-of-Jail card, as the UK car industry is confirming. The EU is rejecting our request to count foreign components as British – and there is nothing the government can do about it. Loyalists blame Brussels for the stalemate as this week’s intensive talks resumed – their ninth such formal session – between David Frost and Michel Barnier on the future trade deal/not. In parallel Gove met Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner in charge of handling the Withdrawal Agreement, and was told to withdraw threats to “break international law” which minister Mike refused to do because it’s just a “safety net”.
It is the argument deployed by teenagers who carry knives. The Groundhog Day negotiations resumed amid speculation that Barnier has agreed to start drafting a legal text without first agreeing the outstanding issues of fishing rights and state aid. It will be presented as a tactical victory for Boris’s tough talk, but masks strategic failure. For once the usual UK predictions of a breakthrough are not being dampened by Brussels eau froide, though there is private bafflement that the Brits aren’t better prepared for the no-deal outcome they threaten – or even a modest deal.
Who’s bluffing whom? To judge by Gove’s own words the man the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is bluffing is himself, this under the impression that his familiar blend of flattery and evasive waffle will fool the rest of us too. There is too much “could” and “hope’ and “plan” and “intend” in Gove statements, even a few “fingers crossed”.
Will the 10 new IT systems with names like SmartFreight and the Goods Vehicle Movement System (both still at the testing stage) be ready by New Year? They are needed to handle UK/EU trade – with or without a Frost-Barnier deal. Ready by November, says Gove, as if that pandemic track and trace system had been ready by June 1 – as promised by the PM.
And will there be enough extra customs staff (50,000, says industry) or vets hired to check food safety, MPs ask? Will the “intermediaries” skilled in the paperwork be in place for smaller firms to hire? Gove hopes and plans and intends that they should. Cheekily he reminds business to be ready to grasp new opportunities of trading with the wider world. No mention here of it coping with confusing, new Covid-19 restrictions, many also at the testing stage.
Red wall MPs aren’t so happy to trust ministers when their constituents can feel the consequences of renewed lockdown on 16.5 million people – as most cannot yet feel the fallout from Brexit. Nor is the so-called libertarian right (“give me liberty, and give me death”) and its commercially-minded media allies. Tory rebels caved on the Internal Market Bill (passed by 340-256). It left ministers facing a significant backbench revolt against “authoritarianism” over lockdown’s impact on individual liberty and economic recovery. An on-camera PM fluffing details didn’t help his authority.
“Rule by decree” must be a damaging jibe for Boris’s self-image too. Opposition parties, Labour, Lib Dem, nationalist and Green, have been more concerned about ministerial consistency and competence. But they share the right’s other, more abstract concern, namely that parliament has again been repeatedly sidelined by self-styled champions of parliamentary sovereignty. And just because “Brexit Spartan” Steve Baker MP is hysterical about most things doesn’t mean he is always wrong. Ditto Lord Jonathan ‘Four Brains’ Sumption QC, who seems to think struggling Matt Hancock is the Stasi. There is still civic space for rational, evidence-based debate without resorting to absurd comparisons, though the space is shrinking fast.
Donald Trump’s response to the New York Times expose of his finances – his business success is as fictitious as his tax returns – was bad enough. He denied it all. In his Cleveland debate with Joe Biden, a scrappy, bad-tempered affair which I watched in the early hours of Wednesday, Trump showed himself to be an aggressive liar – who knew? – while the challenger was blandly uninspiring. A demoralising choice.
But Brits shouldn’t be smug about American dystopia. Nigel Farage, who suffers from a form of attention deficit disorder (he doesn’t get enough attention), has been threatening to launch a new Anti-Lockdown Party. In Scotland, left-wingers Tommy Sheridan and George Galloway are planning to fight next May’s Holyrood elections – on rival sides of the Indy debate, of course. Don’t laugh, England. Actor Laurence Fox is planning to launch a ‘Ukip for Culture’ to fight the intolerant elitist left, Woke-ism and, of course, the BBC.
The once-staid Telegraph is flirting with Fox, “now that Brexit is all but settled”, explains the editor. All but settled? OMG! Back in the real world the short-circuiting of parliamentary consultation applies to the devolved parliaments too. Those online experts I heard at the IfG briefing were concerned about the serious clauses in the Internal Market Bill (not the slightly-law-breaking ones), those designed to entrench rules and standards within the UK that were previously managed in Brussels.
Alas, repatriation of those rules will further centralise power in Whitehall, not devolve it, as promised. Why so? Because the key principle – “mutual recognition” of standards for goods, services and policy across the UK’s four nations – lacks an established consensus on how that would work in practice. Example? Wales says it plans to outlaw nine types of single-use plastic and Scotland may follow suit. But England intends to ban only three. Given England’s economic dominance, that means that England’s plastic rules prevail in practice.
Likewise any bans on chlorinated chicken, GMO foods and additives about which the Celtic nations seem fussier than Whitehall, in its eagerness to cut a deal with the US and provide the struggling Rees-Mogg family with cheaper food. TNE readers will easily detect an irony here: Big England’s dominant numbers and economic clout are bound to big-foot the three Smalls – its own complaint about “Brussels”. I swear I heard someone at the IfG say the solution is about “leaving the EU while making the UK a bit more like the EU”.
By that the speaker meant one with a Council of Ministers and qualified majority voting (QMV) to iron out such problems more fairly, not least by extending the list of exempted policy areas, EU-style. Gove is quick to taunt the SNP over inconsistencies in its ambition to become independent of England while plunging straight back into the EU. He is less aware of his own. Edinburgh, incidentally, is planning to align its own product standards with the EU’s. Tell the Telegraph’s editor Brexit is far from “all but settled”. It’s only warming up.
With a mixture of goodwill and necessity such problems can be fixed, but time is running out for those requiring fixing by January 1 Business was again furious when Gove published his post-transition guidance videos and his “Reasonable Worst Case Scenario” (RWCS) for borders – both on the Cabinet Office website. The RWCS admits that 30% to 50% of Dover trucks might not be “border ready” and that – taken with similar problems on the Calais side – their flow might be reduced by 60-80%. Hence the now infamous 7,000 stuck trucks warning. Ditto other ports.
The good news is that this stuff is based on fallible assumptions which may prove wrong. Anyway, things should get better over three months. That would be worth a “Whoopee!” if it didn’t sound like pandemic predictions last March. Never mind, Covid-19 may further suppress demand, the RWCS suggests. Will current trade plans ensure that worried Type 2 diabetics like Jim Shannon MP, get their foreign insulin, the DUP stalwart asked Gove? Minister Mike hopes so. We all do, though the pharmaceutical trade this week registered rising panic over the lack of mutual recognition agreement with the EU for drugs.
The divergence between theory and practice which has been the hallmark of this government pits libertarian talk with authoritarian action, offset by internal divisions at the highest ministerial levels that end up with mutually contradictory gestures delivering the worst of both worlds. That has been highlighted again this week in the wake of Rishi Sunak’s “winter economic plan”, itself a compromise between the now discarded full budget and conflicting advice from science and economics.
Unlike most chancellors – lawyers or historians – Sunak is a banker by trade, a successful one. He watches volatile financial markets but he also gets (as George Osborne did not) the imperative to pour money into a stricken economy as the best means of rapid recovery. He wants to keep as much of the economy open as the cautious health specialists are prepared to tolerate. But he is also keen to start signalling eventual higher taxes and to avoid further subsidising jobs which have no future.
Which jobs? Ah, that’s the tricky bit. Meanwhile unemployment and hardship rise. On Tuesday Johnson offered “lifetime skills” training for in-demand technical jobs. About time too. The points-based migration rules were also relaxed to reflect skills shortages. Come back, EU butchers, we need you after all.
Old Boris would have been on Sunak’s side in spending money, but minimising the spring lockdown. Since getting a bad Covid-19 attack himself, New Boris – I have abandoned the hope he might be Good Boris – is more open to caution and flirted with the idea of a “fortnight firewall” to stem the autumn second wave that was both predictable and predicted. No.10 denies that Sunak threatened to resign if he did. But the partial lockdown, in tandem with a struggling T-and-T system, has been enough to drive small firms, theatres, minor football clubs and swathes of the hospitality sector to despair.
Just as they were climbing out of the pit (“Sunak Specials £1.99 a pint” says the poster outside my local Wetherspoons) they get pushed back down again in many parts of the country. Many – not all – universities’ plans to welcome students back have proved inadequate. Some students have been reckless or self-pitying: this is not the siege of Leningrad. But the police feel overwhelmed and unloved. Locally-led track-and-trace systems to measure local restrictions create difficulties too, but they seem to work better than top-down rule by tactical adjustment. Much like Nicola Sturgeon and Tory backbenchers, serious council leaders in major cities complain that Whitehall fails to consult.
Even in a major crisis it is always a temptation for media to focus on the froth. Is Sunak planning a leadership bid? I suspect not, it’s certainly unwise because a cornered No.10 will not find it hard to identify his “eat out to help out” scheme as a superspreader and to scare voters over tax. Has Boris’s cronyism over-reached itself in floating Paul (“Enemies of the People”) Dacre as a potential chair of Ofcom as well as pioneering Young Fogey, Charles Moore, to chair the BBC? Probably not. My hunch is that Dacre’s candidacy is an expendable dead cat – intended to make us grateful that it’s only Moore, a clever man ill-qualified for a multi-media job which looks more powerful than it is.
In other words these are distractions from the substance, as culture warfare usually is. Just look at Trump, a braggart and a rogue, but a crafty one who knows how to flatter his base. It should sober us all to realise that the contents of the president’s tax files – he has fought for years to prevent publication – may not be enough to guarantee rejection by US voters. But we have become so polarised in our views, so eager to denounce those we disagree with as knaves or fools – I know, I do it too – that we risk destroying the very freedoms we claim to value.
In the past week both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey, new-but-old leader of the Lib Dems, have offered their supporters virtual-conference speeches that have not resonated as they might have done in more normal, hopeful times. A few serious analysts are starting to wonder if the threat to Johnson’s leadership comes not from Starmer and Co, let alone the Corbynite-Podemos-Syriza (remember them?) left. Not even from what used to be the mainstream centre-right, Jeremy Hunt and the Tories in exile.
No, public anger at failed management of Covid-19 and of Brexit by the people who gave us run-down public services, a cash-strapped NHS and disorder at the borders, might generate a mutant strain of Farage-ism and Laurence Fox’s half-baked ideas. Not just here either. Only if Trump is defeated and leaves the Oval Office can the rest of the world catch its breath and optimism take fresh heart. Asylum seekers to be shipped to Ascension Island? No, Priti, it isn’t going to happen.