Faced with the twin crises of the Covid-19 pandemic and the looming Brexit deadline it is looking increasingly likely that Boris Johnson’s premiership is beginning to unravel. His criminal incompetence on the former is now being compounded by the chaos of the different tiers of lockdown he is attempting to impose, while his brinkmanship on the latter has put him at odds with the CBI and business leaders. On both of these issues cracks in the Tory monolith are beginning to appear and are reflected by growing disquiet among MPs and even splits in the Cabinet. Johnson’s routing of the anti-Brexiteers and his 80-seat Commons majority only a few months ago are looking increasingly like pyrrhic victories now.
On Brexit he has fallen foul of the CBI, big business and even the National Farmers’ Union. The CBI director Caroline Fairbairn is quoted in the Financial Times as saying “it is difficult to prepare for it if we don’t know what we are preparing for”, and another business leader echoing this view opines, “we are struggling to survive the Covid19 pandemic and are still in the dark about the impact of leaving.” In the House of Commons confusion on the issue was personified by Michael Gove who, with characteristic slipperiness, managed to say that talks with the European Union had effectively ended, but that at the same time EU were making constructive moves.
His performance brought snorts of derision from his former boss Theresa May who was heard to describe his contribution as “utter rubbish”. What is clear from this mess is that neither government nor business have made any effective contingency planning for whatever outcome may confront them. This is particularly true of the vexed issue of the Irish border — which will become the only land border between Europe and the UK after Brexit. How can the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement for cross-border co-operation be squared with the imperative of setting up customs arrangements and tariffs on goods flowing in both directions after Brexit.
The political consequences of this contradiction are incalculable. They have been made even more complex by signals from the US, with the Democrat presidential candidate warning Downing Street that if it undermines the Good Friday Agreement, it can kiss goodbye to a trade deal with the US. Over the response to Covid-19 there is even greater confusion and disagreement. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak has not only expressed opposition to further lockdown but is even reported to have threatened resignation over the issue. By reducing the furlough scheme from 80 percent of earnings to 67 percent he has demonstrated graphically that his concern is not the health or welfare of ordinary people, but the interests of the ‘economy’.
Arguments about different tiers of lockdown in different regions muddy the water about the key issue which is that no period of lockdown, whether a ‘circuit breaker’ of two weeks or even a longer period, can work without an effective test, trace, isolate and support programme in place. It beggars belief that management consultants who are attempting to shore up the shambolic efforts to date are being paid £7,000 a day — the wages of incompetent failure. On top of this has been the continued fracturing of Brexit and Covid-19 failures reduces Johnson to tiers the tier system itself. Grubby and very public negotiations, effectively bribing regions in the north of England into accepting the terms of, in particular, the most extreme lockdown arrangements of tier three, have played out in the press exposing the chaos and incompetence of Johnson, Hancock and the rest.
During discussions with Greater Manchester, Johnson’s government managed to alienate both the region’s mayor, Labour-supporting Andy Burnham, and many of his own backbenchers grouped in the powerful 1922 Committee. The chair of the committee, Graham Brady, along with eight other Tory MPs, have their constituencies in Greater Manchester. Many have been outraged at the way Johnson has handled the situation, with two voting in support of a Labour motion to increase the lockdown payment to the region.
Brady, of course, played a leading role in dumping the former Tory leader, Theresa May, so thoughts of him as an enemy will be keeping Johnson awake at night. A further fracturing has seen Tory-controlled Bolton council break ranks with the Greater Manchester region and begin to negotiate its own lockdown deal with the government, as its pandemic strategy continues to unravel. If one council succeeds in negotiating its own deal, why wouldn’t every other?
Much was made of the Tory breach of the ‘red wall’ of Labour seats in the north at the last election, but Covid-19 and the politics of lockdown have created tensions here as well. A former Johnson cheerleader, Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale and Darwin argued that the 80 northern Tory MPs “were Johnson’s majority” and that “bluntly he needs to look after us”. Boris Johnson’s government is marked by failure