Saturday, October 16

The Guardian’s opinion on Brexit in times of Covid: Crisis? What crisis? | Brexit

In January 1979, a Labor Prime Minister, James Callaghan, returned from a Caribbean summit to a country that appeared to be in crisis. A week earlier, truckers had gone on strike, cutting off gasoline supplies in the “winter of discontent.” When the prime minister arrived at London’s Heathrow airport, he held a press conference in which nothing memorable was said. Instead, in a phrase that has become a code of political complacency, Callaghan was forever associated with the Sun newspaper headline of the following day: “Crisis? What crisis?

His fate was sealed. Callaghan lost the next general election to Margaret Thatcher. The lesson for politicians is the importance of perception in a crisis. If something feels like a crisis, it is indeed a crisis. Britain now faces its gravest emergency since World War II. It faces the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus as it adjusts to a new diminished state outside the European Union. The country’s health service is at a breaking point and its future as the unified state is at stake. All this is not mentioned by Boris Johnson, perhaps because he falsely promised that Brexit would save the NHS.

His handling of the pandemic has been a government failure so great that it can be seen from space. This month, for the third time this year, he did not act until the virus was spreading uncontrollably. Now hundreds die every day. Parliament should be remembered so that parliamentarians can advocate a better response to a new highly transmissible variant of Covid. Johnson could convene MPs to discuss the pandemic, not just Brexit, but he won’t because that runs the risk of alerting the public to the sorry state we’re in. Downing Street aims to survive mistakes rather than learn from them. A record of confusion and withdrawal means that voters place little faith in the prime minister’s reassurance.

Johnson prefers catching bouquets to dodging bricks. Next week, parliament will sit two days to finish what Johnson started in June 2016. MPs will be asked to pass a hard Brexit, even though they have barely had time to read the new treaty, let alone consider it properly. Shamelessly, Johnson seeks credit for his agreement and the freedom to run our own domestic policy without the restrictions of EU law. Gloating will deepen European mistrust and our isolation. It is also insensitive, as most companies are ill-prepared for change. The recent sight of trucks backing miles from Dover, which drives 17% of total UK trade in goods, it is a warning of how bad things can get.

Johnson’s recklessness could be explained by Labor’s resignation. Sir Keir Starmer says his party will vote for the Johnson deal, because the alternative is to leave the EU without one. Workers risk being sucked into Johnson’s mess. However, in the 2019 election Labor lost two seats to the Conservatives, but more than 50 left some. The message was clear: in 2016 people were given the right to vote and the result was expected to be respected.

Sir Keir is therefore right in endorsing the deal, but that will not be enough. To regain confidence, you will have to find a narrative that convinces the public that you are fighting in the next election, not the last. It would be a rhetorical mistake for Sir Keir to apologize for the opposition to Tory Europhobia. With Johnson, conservatives can ignore their own past, but they will never apologize for it. Britain lacks a responsible government capable of building a coherent compensation policy for any of the twin crises engulfing the country. With Johnson, it is far from clear that we will ever achieve.

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