Brexit Boost for Boris
Having won a thumping majority a year ago, Boris Johnson keeps squandering the early, widespread good will towards him. Daft aspects of Britain’s vaccination rollout encapsulate why. All credit to him that Britain became the first Western country to start rolling out vaccines but, if he’s to ease restrictions by Easter, vaccinations need to increase from the current 1 million a week to 2 million. There aren’t enough NHS staff to do this, and while 30,000 eligible retired doctors and nurses have volunteered to help, they face a wall of officialdom demanding 15 forms to fill in, including proof they’ve been ‘trained’ in the latest orthodoxies on race and diversity. Only 5,000 have persisted and been accepted. So, not only does the government not trust experienced professionals to administer vaccines, it allows woke red tape to delay the response to a national emergency. This distracts from what should be a good news story for the government.
And there haven’t been many. Even allowing for the debatable reliability of death statistics, the UK has had one of the worst Covid death tolls in Europe, both in absolute numbers and per capita. While Britain is hardly unique in wrecking its economy, its policing of Covid diktats has been shockingly heavy-handed (think using drones to arrest lone dog-walkers) and its officialdom is often epically incompetent. It created, for example, the concept of the ‘non-essential’ shopping item and ‘a substantial meal’ (which must be consumed in order to have a drink in a pub) and was then unable to define them. Then there’s Johnson’s irritatingly baseless optimism about lights at ends of tunnels – and his embarrassing recent attack on Labour for wanting to close down Christmas, which he then went on to do himself.
All the population wants to know is when the nightmare will end. Instead, Johnson gives them new climate change commitments. Britain will be ‘the Saudi Arabia of wind power’, generating enought electricity to powering all homes and electric cars by 2030, he pledges. The sale of evil, non-electric cars will be banned by 2030. Officials will police the wood used in (ecologically dubious) open fires. The pronouncements are warmly welcomed by Greenpeace and Carrie Symonds, the prime minister’s new chief advisor, consort and Princess of Whales, but are met with eye-rolling by the Tories’ bewildered new blue collar supporters.
Johnson has disappointed Tory voters who hoped that after his victory the country would shift away from political correctness on so many issues: the record numbers of cross-Channel illegal immigrants; the woke police who are tough on lockdown protestors but not BLM, environmentalist or Muslim activists; and the Left’s continued grip on the civil service and cultural institutions, including the BBC. Johnson doesn’t seem interested in these battles.
This backdrop means there were doubts about whether he’d deliver a genuine Brexit. But on this, Johnson has remained consistent and tough. In his EU trade deal, true to his word, he re-established Britain’s sovereignty and control of its laws, borders and money (the A$500 million a week it paid to the EU). By contrast, Theresa May’s Chequers plan would have kept the UK in the EU Customs Union and subject to the European Court of Justice. Britain is now free of the Single Market, the Customs Union and the ECJ. It can pursue its own trade deals and controls its immigration policy.
Johnson has achieved all this while maintaining free trade with the EU. Brussels long dismissed this possibility as Britain having its cake and eating it. Did Johnson negotiate away too much to achieve this? EU access to UK fishing waters was the area where Britain compromised most, backing down from its original bid to reduce the EU fish catch by 80% to 25%: the new arrangement will last five and a half years, not the three Britain originally proposed. Ministers have defended this, saying the UK fishing fleet is incapable of catching much more than the two-thirds of fish now available to it and promising investment of £100 million to expand its capacities.
The trade deal has been criticised for not covering the UK’s vital financial services trade but there will probably be a mutual recognition deal in coming months. The deal’s main downside is new paperwork requirements for trade – veterinary certificates, certification on the origin of goods etc – despite trade continuing to be tariff and quota free.
The Tories have united behind the deal. Meanwhile, there’s disappointment from their political enemies. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon clearly hoped for No Deal, which would have allowed her to campaign in Scotland’s May elections that only independence could re-establish EU free trade. That’s now much harder. She’ll also have to persuade Scots that giving back rights to the EU over fishing, joining the Eurozone and a hard border with England all make sense. If we’re to avoid a miserable UK break-up and the removal of the Cross of St Andrew from the Union Flag –— possibly requiring an equivalent change to Australia’s flag —let’s hope she fails.
Polling suggests that if an election were held now, the government would lose its majority and Johnson would lose his seat. Still, if there are no serious Brexit implementation hiccups, the vaccine rollout goes well and Britain starts ending Covid restrictions, Johnson’s standing will rise and he could recover. Yet his Achilles’ heel will remain — his left-metropolitan instincts on many issues about which Tories care. His most effective critic, Nigel Farage, will continue to point this out.
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Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe Correspondent
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