When populism meets reality


by Sean Rickard

The world into which Mr Johnson thought he would be launching England post Brexit no longer exists.   His, populist soundbites of ‘global Britain’ implied a powerful world influence and champion of free trade.   Alas, his vision, warped by delusions of national grandeur and his riding on a wave of nostalgia, is now facing multiple collisions with reality.   Reality is the self-inflicted threat of introverted irrelevance for the UK.   Our reputation for good governance has been damaged by the Brexit debacle and further impaired by the handling of Covid-19.   Reality, is the stalled Brexit negotiations just as global trade is falling into recession and tensions between Washington and Beijing are growing.   Reality, is the irreparably weakening of Mr Johnson’s authority by widespread condemnation of his support for Dominic Cummings’ indefensible flouting of the lockdown rules.   Is the disconnect between Mr Johnson’s disingenuous populism – in his case anti-elitism is a sham – and casual regard for reality is approaching it denouement?

Many may not have seen it in his Brexit campaign, but Johnson’s lack of integrity and leadership is now difficult to avoid.   Rather than gravitas and veracity he resorts to ill-founded optimism, a surfeit of bluster and when challenged, mendacity.   Typical was his initial, casual response to Covid-19: a failure that has now collided with reality.   In contrast, the Chancellor’s ‘whatever it takes’ response to the pandemic was bold and fundamentally correct but real challenges lie ahead.   Before the crisis, in his now largely forgotten Budget, the Chancellor committed the government to increased public expenditure to help the regions that had suffered grievously from ten years of austerity – the very regions that the government’s own projections show will suffer most from Brexit.   Welcome as his announced investments in infrastructure, skills training and new industries were, their full-effects are long term and therefore grossly inadequate to support the economy as it slowly recovers from the deepest recession in modernity – optimistic talk a V-shaped recovery has been dropped.  

But Mr Johnson will need more than bluster and irrational exuberance to square post-Covid-19 reality with Tory zealots who will want the deficit reduced and without higher taxes.   A return to austerity is not an option.   Reality suggest Mr Johnson will find it hard to reduce spending.   It is ironic that the Tory Brexit zealots are about to discover that their rejoicing in distancing the UK from Europe’s propensity for public intervention has been premature – this is precisely what the country now expects.  

In a matter of weeks, the UK and EU must decide whether to extend the post-Brexit transition period that grants Britain continued frictionless trade with the bloc.   Although his chancellor is now predicting a ‘severe recession,’ Mr Johnson is adamant; even though the negotiations are stalled he will not prolong the transition period.   This stubbornness is all the more alarming given the reality that the much hyped trade deal with Washington will, according to the government’s own estimates, amount to a negligible 0.16% increase in GDP by the middle of the next decade compared to GDP being some 5% smaller than it otherwise would be in the event of agreeing a basic FTA with the EU and some 8% smaller if there is no deal.   Mr Johnson, in what appears a supreme act of arrogance and ineptitude, is prepared to risk even further damage to the economy.   Some Tory zealots, it is rumoured, argue that the added costs of Brexit will be lost in the wider economic malaise.   If true, this is yet more evidence of moral paucity – but not unexpected in Mr Johnson’s government.   The prime minister can fairly claim he has a mandate to deliver Brexit but not to take steps that would compound the economic damage caused by the pandemic.  

Alongside the failure to make progress in the Brexit trade negotiations, the government has now been forced to address the vexed issue of the special status of Northern Ireland post Brexit.   True to form, despite Mr Johnson’s assertions to the contrary, the government has now conceded there will be post-Brexit checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but even here Brussels views the government’s plan as failing to honour the protocol agreed with EU leaders last year, yet another example of Mr Johnson’s mendacity.

Finally, we come to Mr Johnson defence of the indefensible: namely Mr Cummings.   His government’s lockdown message could hardly have been clearer; namely, ‘stay at home’.   Johnson’s, morally risible defence of Mr Cummings, that he was only following his ‘instinct,’ contemptuously overlooks the point that rules are imposed to override understandable temptations to follow instincts.   The disdain and hypocrisy in Mr Cummings’ journey to Durham has rightly created a furore amongst a population that has endured many sufferings by sticking to the lockdown rules and unusually it has brought forth stinging criticism from Church of England bishops, one of which asked ‘do we accept being lied to, patronised and treated by a PM as mugs?’   History suggests that Mr Cummings – who has not apologised – probably doesn’t care about his behaviour let alone his lack of judgement, but Mr Johnson should.  

A man of integrity would have resigned and having not done so Mr Cummings should have been sacked.   Instead Mr Johnson decided to face down the fury, but in so doing he has brazenly endorsed the lethal belief that there is one rule for the population and another for the prime ministers friends.   The interesting question is why has he so blatantly risked undermining the trust he needs if the population is to continue behaving selflessly in driving down Covid-19 infections?   There are only two explanations: either he is fearful that without his Svengali his inadequacies will more quickly be revealed; or he lacks the judgement and integrity expected of a prime minister.   The final irony is that Mr Johnson who came to power at the head of an anti-elite Brexit uprising, has now been shamed by an act of supreme elitism and disdain for ordinary people, plus çan change.


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