No Deal and a Covid resurgence will make a torrid winter for the government
Time was when Conservative governments stood for law and order; they didn’t wantonly break law themselves. Time was when Conservative governments stood for the Union; they didn’t sign up to first sell out Ulster unionists and then U-turn and enrage nationalists (which is at least even-handed). Time was when Conservative governments valued a stable economy, sound money and a low deficit. Time was when Conservative governments were pro-business and anti-red tape. Time was when Conservative governments simply aimed to deliver competent government, could state what their objectives were and explain to the public how their policies would deliver on them and why any initial pain was temporary, necessary and would ultimately be worthwhile. That time is not now.
How did we get here? The easy answer would be Brexit, which has given the Tories a bad dose of ideology, but that answer wouldn’t be right – not by itself anyway though it has acted as catalyst. Brexit has indeed upturned some traditional Tory priorities but leaving the EU need not have been quite so disruptive nor so badly managed both politically and practically. Nor is Brexit to blame for the incoherence in Covid strategy.
In truth, the problem is more personal and at its core is the PM. It was clear last year when the text of the Withdrawal Agreement was published that the backstop of an Irish Sea border would end free movement within the UK. How did Johnson not understand this and why were so many MPs so willing to bat away the obvious?
Maybe he and they genuinely believed that there would be a trade deal with the EU that would render irrelevant the backstop arrangements – though again, with the EU having that protection in its pocket and with it having proven so stubborn in all its dealings with the UK since 2015, Johnson can only have indulged in wishful thinking if he believed it wouldn’t be intransigent in its demands in this phase too.
But wishful thinking and a casual refusal to think beyond the immediate is absolutely typical of Johnson, by nature a columnist with little inclination to think beyond the next deadline. It’s also typical, in a different way, of Cummings who burns through interpersonal goodwill with those he doesn’t respect – itself a tiny group – like a rocket heading for orbit. Unlike the rocket however, prime ministers and their advisors cannot so easily jettison those who’ve carried them to such heights.
A failure to think ahead, or think coherently, is also responsible for the complete mess of what ought to be a Covid policy. It’s ironic that having demanded, and won, such central powers for No 10, ministers are now operating entirely contradictory policies on the most severe domestic crisis in decades. The public is being told to go back to their offices, schools, universities and restaurants at the same time as being told not to go to each others’ houses; the Chancellor is still on track (for now) to and furlough in seven weeks at the same time that a new national lockdown may be needed. He wants to save on the cost of that while the PM and Health Secretary blithely talks about spending £100bn on Moonshot testing. £100bn is twice the UK’s defence budget, for comparison – or around £6000 per family of four. And that’s without thinking of what would practically need to change in order to deliver the vision: redeployment of jobs and facilities on a wartime scale. Moonshot? Moonshine more like.
It’s unsurprising that the public are confused and lacking in trust. How can you trust a government that doesn’t appear to know what its plan is, or why; which can’t explain what it’s doing because it’s going in two different directions at the same time; which demands dictatorial powers but isn’t sure why it needs them; which expects sacrifices from the public, enforced in theory by law but in practice by self-restraint but is unwilling to abide by its own word?
So much for the politics. Where it’s likely to really get hard is the real world effects.
Let’s start with Covid. After a few good months, things are beginning to deteriorate again. Case numbers are increasing rapidly – the 3539 cases recorded yesterday was the highest since 10 May – and the 7-day average for cases has doubled in 11 days. With greater movement both happening and being encouraged, that trend isn’t going to be reversed. Worse, though unsurprising despite the largest increase in cases being among young adults, hospitalisations have also doubled in around the same period, albeit at very low levels compared with the peak in the Spring.
That raises big questions about what the government’s response should be. Does it reimpose greater restrictions or try to power through, perhaps trying to protect the elderly and other vulnerable groups? If it does reimpose restrictions, that means no Christmas in any normal sense and either further support for firms and organisations obliged to be shut down, or the loss of a huge number of jobs and businesses; if it doesn’t, deaths will inevitably follow the trend in cases and hospitalisations – and can the NHS cope with high Covid demand on top of the usual winter stresses? Oh, and the testing system can’t cope with demand.
Added to which is Brexit. Again. The chances of a deal now being struck are vanishingly small. This is not all the fault of London; the EU must take some blame for pushing too hard as it has at every other stage – and as at every other stage, ultimately being rejected. Even so, the deranged decision to rat on Johnson’s own Withdrawal Agreement (the legislation for which may not pass the Commons and certainly won’t pass the Lords, which has a veto until well after transition ends), all but ensures an agreement can’t be reached.
(As an aside, some argue that this is all part of a master plan to wage a culture war against the liberal-Remain House of Lords, Courts, and Brussels simultaneously. Perhaps. If so, reneging on an EU treaty which the Tory party championed less than a year ago strikes me as weak ground on which to launch such an offensive.)
But if transition ends without a deal, that means that come the start of 2021, Kent will become a car park and shortages of goods imported from Europe will start appearing on UK shelves. Less visibly but perhaps more significantly, Britain’s service sector may find itself shut out of the EU as its licences to operate there expire. True, parts of Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands may also become car-parks but the most serious effects will be in Britain.
January is never much of a fun month, coming in the dark depths of winter but without the joys of Christmas. In 2021, it’s entirely plausible that for Britain it could mean another extremely deep recession, a government deficit out of control, unemployment spiralling to levels not seen since the 1980s (or even 1930s), a Sterling crisis, tens of thousands more dying from Covid-19, shortages in the shops and chaos at the borders. And that’s assuming no black swans.
In truth, some of that may be unavoidable. Covid in particular is a challenge that appears to have few answers in the short term. Mitigation can be handled for better or worse but the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, nor can the rest of life be suspended indefinitely pending a vaccine.
Having overturned so many of the Conservatives’ historic policy positions and practical instincts, Johnson cannot easily rely on the Tory brand to see him through. He must inevitably therefore fall back on his Leave coalition to see him through. Can that be enough though, against a Labour Party no longer dominated by the shouty left and keen to avoid aligning too strongly with the ultra-Remainers? I’m doubtful.
For the time being, and probably for some considerable time to come, Johnson is relatively safe from a challenge. It’s not that long since he won the Tories their biggest victory since the 1980s and his party retains a lead in the polls. While the public back him, the MPs won’t move. Indeed, going by the experience of IDS and Theresa May, the MPs probably won’t move for some considerable time after the public turns against him. But if this winter is as hard for his government (and the country) as seems likely, that turning point could come both quickly and harshly. Put those together and the 5/1 that Ladbrokes are offering on a Johnson 2022 departure date looks like very good value.