Blathering Bojo fails to assert himself at home and abroad

PUBLISHED: 11:50 17 May 2020 | UPDATED: 11:50 17 May 2020

Blathering Boris buckles. Photo: Martin Rowson

Blathering Boris buckles. Photo: Martin Rowson

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MICHAEL WHITE on the week an indecisive Johnson tried, and failed, to please everyone.

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I don’t know what it’s like where you are. But the traffic on the motorway near us has been getting louder all week and it was the cold snap, not the government’s new “Stay Alert” slogan, that kept our park from filling up. After watching Boris Johnson’s muddled Covid-19 messaging Matt Lucas published an online parody (“if you can go to work, don’t go to work”) which was quickly viewed three million times. Less publicly, my wife and I took turns to explain the new policy to a friend who’d missed the broadcast. We gave hilariously different accounts. Churchillian, the policy is not. “We shall never surrender, er, um, crikey, unless we do.”

I wish I could report that our EU friends and neighbours have been doing so much better. That’s what TNE readers want to hear. The awkward fact is that some are, some aren’t. Either way they’re mostly doing their own national thing in the absence of a strong lead from Brussels. France’s “Restez Prudents” slogan may be Boris-compatible, but its go-it-alone Covid contact-tracing App looks like proving no more successful than Britain’s native tech offering being piloted on the Isle of Wight. While Germany has reluctantly led the majority to embrace the Apple-Google tracing App, what’s been missing is standard EU-wide compatibility, surely vital as the Schengen area’s lockdown eases.

Rich, cosmopolitan cities in France, Italy and Spain as well as Britain, have been hardest hit as corona-incubators. But – as with Brexit – its their poorer hinterlands, France’s northern “Red Zone” departments, Italy’s southern tourist spots, that might suffer the worst economic fallout from falling order books and cancelled holidays. That’s where EU solidarity should kick in. But last week’s ruling of Germany’s constitutional court in Karlsruhe – a city in the prosperous Rhineland – that the European Central Bank must carry out a rapid “proportionality assessment” before making future bond purchases is bad news on that score.

We’ll come back to that, but don’t get your hopes up. Those EU-UK future trade talks which have resumed this week? Nope, not much to cheer about there either. The Johnson government shows every sign that it will run down the clock towards a hard Brexit on December 31 if Team Barnier does not show more flexibility. It will use the disruption ahead, inescapable and Covid-driven, as air-cover, an alibi and an excuse for what will already be job losses and recession. We always knew they’d need a scapegoat to blame. Few guessed it would be a virus.

It would be a comfort to acknowledge that the Johnson government is finally getting on top of our unwelcome house guest. In fairness, Monday’s two prime ministerial appearances were better than his chaotic TV address from Downing Street on Sunday night. After an overnight media thumbs down, he was clearly shifting up a gear. The PM’s statement to the socially-distanced Commons at 3.30pm was crisper and clearer, at least until he was subjected to a quickfire string of detailed questions from Keir Starmer. So was his 7 o’clock hosting of the daily press briefing, at least until he encountered Pooja, a no-nonsense pharmacist from Solihull, who felt he had created “more questions than answers”. The Daily Mail’s sketchwriter agreed.

Starmer’s forensics (in response to which Boris’s “flannelled,” the Mail man concluded) highlighted the ramshackled nature of fresh guidance to target groups of employees, commuters and families. England only, folks. Got that? Not you Scots, Welsh or Irish. “Never make an announcement on Monday” Dominic Cummings once said, because you can’t get the right staff in over the weekend. All the same, hastily-tweaked rule modifications, 51 pages of “Our Plan to Rebuild”, was issued on Monday, with more on Tuesday and Wednesday. Johnson’s foreword conceded the miracle vaccine may be a year away – and may be never. The loyalist press, which has backed him as the Good News Bunny, struggled to defend his handling. Garden centres, grandparents, 14-day quarantine rules, it took days to get the story straight.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Boris the Broadbrush Bunny can’t do a QC’s detail. So when fending off Starmer’s measured taunts he fell back – with one exception – on columnist’s waffle and “good old solid British common sense”. Common sense is better than White House Dettol, but it does put the Covid-19 parcel back in your lap. As George Osborne’s Treasury chief of staff, Rupert Harrison, grandly put it on Radio 4’s Today on Tuesday, ensuring that the R-for-Reproduction number falls comes down to the “behavioural response and compliance by individuals”.

Harrison is now an investment banker, a trade where individual behavioural compliance with prudential banking rules got seriously out of hand before the 2007-9 crash – yet very few bankers went to jail. Delicate territory then. Yet the one exception to Boris’s blather this week came when he claimed that his government’s response to the Covid crisis is superior to Labour’s in 2008 because “we’re looking after the working people of this country”. Actually no, prime minister, your side externalised the cost of rescuing the banks – a policy you backed – by imposing a crude version of austerity to pay down the debt after 2010. It bore down most heavily on the weak and left the NHS ill-prepared for Covid-19.

Yet when former leader, Michael Howard, was challenged about the message muddle and pressure from his own faction to unlock faster he told Today: “I don’t think ideology comes into this at all. We have all got to be pragmatic.” We do indeed, Michael, as Rishi Sunak’s ever-expanding Magic Money Tree again showed by extending the furlough scheme for 7.5 million workers until October.

But the pushback is ideological. Those who deplore the erosion of ancient freedoms – while attacking lefties, Remoaners and Greens for relishing “state-backed incarceration” – do so in the name of personal responsibility, as well as economic recovery and summer holidays in Tuscany.

Of course, personal responsibility requires us all to “Stay Alert” – which mostly still means “Stay at Home” even in England – and to consider other people. The paradox of this evolving crisis is that polls show Brits to be prioritising health over the economy more than comparable nations (as they did ‘sovereignty’ in 2016?). We are also fearful of returning to work if the workplace or the bus is deemed unsafe. It’s not just Unite’s Len McCluskey causing trouble. The CBI and head teachers are worried too. Confidence requires clarity.

But adhering to the “Don’t drink and drive” slogan does not make the roads safe from those who do. That’s why the assertion of ‘self-regarding actions’ – ones we have the unfettered right to take because they affect no one else – was widely denounced as inadequate as soon as it was promulgated by the liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill, in the Victorian age of cholera. Few individual actions do not impact upon others, however much the point is denied by disease-spreading anti-vaxxers, who demand their freedoms back from Berlin to Minnesota. A pandemic requires collective action, underpinned by consensus and a willingness by government to risk unpopularity by enforcing the rules where necessary.

That’s where populists come unstuck. They shrink from the burdens of unpopulism. It’s where the Johnson cabinet of vassals has come unstuck under pressure from ‘libertarian’ Conservative MPs and free market evangelists, donors on the financial services wing of their party. To please hard-pressed newspapers, ministers and their off-camera briefers built up expectations of an imminent retreat from lockdown last week: “Magic Monday,” what the Vote Leave crowd used to call “Freedom Day”. Johnson shares their instinct. But Born Again Boris hasn’t quite forgotten his brush with the Reaper, closer than two metres. His new-found caution chimes with the advice of his scientists and emerging evidence from abroad of a second Covid spike, even in well-run Germany and South Korea. It also chimes with a streak of cowardice.

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Fortunately the Treasury boffins seem to grasp how damaging to their Covid debt mountain and to fragile economic confidence a second spike would be. So Downing St back-pedalled, but not enough to clear up the confusion. Watching crowd-pleaser Johnson on Sunday night and twice on Monday it was not hard to see why. As foreign secretary and PM Johnson enjoys being the job more than he enjoys doing it. His deep need to please voters prevents him being bold enough to upset them, let alone be decisive. “More Cake-ism” I scrawled in my notebook.

This became crystal clear when he was asked – “yes or no” – if people should cover their faces on the bus? Johnson recoiled from the obvious reply. No compulsion, he waffled, but it will “help each other” if we all wear face coverings. Not masks, you note. They’re in short supply in hospitals and care homes where the death toll is finally falling. He meant, but did not say, home-made ones. The papers have been full of advice on recycling discarded T-shirts.

It’s not that the Conservative press isn’t critical of individual ministers and their performance, though rarely of the World King himself in whom they are so heavily invested. The tone of the Sun, Mail and Telegraph is increasingly acerbic about tardy, inadequate policy and failed implementation, on lockdown, PPE, care homes, the testing regime and confused messaging. On VE Day the Daily Borisgraph gave over its front page to Starmer’s complaints about confusion and dither. Its Sunday sister revealed that 50,000 tests were sent to the US for diagnosis. Voters’ “rally to the flag” instinct keeps up government polling figures, but it’s not been forgotten.

Tory newspapers stop short of drawing the obvious conclusions, that Johnson’s Churchill tribute act is falling woefully short of events and that his Brexit-certified cabinet is conspicuously weak. None of the choices it has to make are easy, ministers are torn between saving lives and saving the economy from prolonged decay. Governing is made harder by the clumsy mechanics of remote video-conferencing. It is just that there’s no convincing sense of grip and only the vaguest “shape of a roadmap”, as Johnson himself vaguely described it. On the perilous step-by-step journey from Level 4 towards Level 3 (if we’re lucky) around July 4, trust is needed. It is visibly fraying.

Blame-shifting distraction, the Trump tactic, is evident when the tabloids blame “union wrecking” over safety concerns, Turkish makers of defective PPE or hospitals for dumping infected patients back in care homes. Yet it will only work so much, as the White House is learning. Commuters who know they can’t cycle to the City from Winchester or Peterborough start to sense that the Johnsonians have no more empathy with their daily realities – let alone experience – than with factory workers.

So this is a slow-burning fuse which may one day wind its way back to Brexit, brought to them by the same insouciant team of theorists who promised – on slender evidence – that a trade deal with the US would compensate for losses with the EU27. Given American hard ball negotiating style – ask hero Churchill, Boris – and ambitions to sell us cheaper food and more expensive drugs (to offset the chlorine?), the added complexity of our promise to squeeze more tax from the US tech giants irks Washington, which is also engaged in stalled trade talks with Brussels, ones the EU is seeking to revive. It further raises the bar for No Mates Britain.

Trump wants a pre-election deal he could parade, one which would align London with his current anti-China stance and further decouple it from alignment with the 27. If Liz Truss’s team – itself an unsettling phrase – resists he may get nasty and turn Boris into election fodder. Before the UK-EU talks resumed for session three this week the EU team complained – again – that the Brits aren’t trying enough, that they plan to use the Covid crisis as their alibi if they don’t get their way on fish and tariff-free access. Johnson’s point man, David Frost, is said to be arguing that an extension beyond December 31 would lock Britain into the EU’s Covid legislation and costs over which it would have no say. No say, eh? This sounds like the youth who murdered his parents, then asked the court for leniency on the grounds that he was an orphan.

Intriguingly, the forensic Starmer has not joined the SNP, Lib Dems and others, including Ireland, in urging a negotiating extension. Though the Labour leader doubts if there is time to cut a deal he intends to “see how they get on”. This will disappoint many, as Starmer has done on other issues. But he is still binding up Labour’s wounds, aware that many of its supporters voted for Brexit and that the Tories itch to exploit his pro-EU past. Unheroic it may be, but biding your time and letting the other side make mistakes is always sensible in my book. Politics is about more than virtue signalling.

In any case, the EU has more pressing distractions of its own. Unless the central bank can come up with a good enough justification for its policy the Karlsruhe court’s ruling would, in effect, require the ECB to retreat on its bond-buying version of quantitative easing (QE) which lubricates the system and provides emergency relief to member states – or Germany’s own Bundesbank to withdraw its involvement.

But a more dangerous option is also being discussed in Christine Lagarde’s ECB team, namely that it sue the German court for breach of EU law which – Karlsruhe accepts – overrides German law in areas of its competence.

The European Commission, headed by the German, Ursula von der Leyen, could get round this by finding other ways to address the eurozone’s north-south poverty divide by issuing – and guaranteeing – some form of mutualised debt, a coronabond. That too would be a big leap. But the German court is politely saying the ECB has been exceeding its own powers, an assertion that Polish and Hungarian nationalist governments would happily exploit for their own ends, as might Boris Johnson’s. So attack may be the ECB’s best form of defence.

Battles between governments and central bankers are as old and regular as modern banking. But the stakes for Europe’s future are huge. Washington and Beijing will be watching, hoping to exploit weakness. If that wasn’t enough to worry us, Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned his fellow countrymen at Berlin’s VE Day celebrations (Berlin was liberated too) to “beware of the old evil in a new guise.” Take your pick.

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