4 min read.Updated: 23 Dec 2020, 08:18 PM ISTRishabh Bhandari
Britain is facing immense uncertainty amid the mishandling of the pandemic and Brexit, and Boris Johnson’s government needs to urgently recapture its reformist zeal to set the country back on a recovery path.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s year started with the euphoria of a sensational general election victory. It is set to end amid the recrimination of a Christmas lockdown. The traditional festive season has all been cast aside with a chill across the nation. As a new strain of covid causes mayhem with border restrictions, hospitals stretched to the limits and shuttered streets, the dystopian scene marks a somber reality. Meanwhile, the country hasn’t agreed on a year-end Brexit arrangement with Europe. A no-deal Brexit looks imminent. As criticism of the government mounts, there is justifiable unease about what lies ahead. Nonetheless, it is too soon to write off Johnson. But his government needs to urgently rediscover its vision. Reforming the state and supporting economic freedom will hold the key to a sustainable recovery.
To be fair, few governments can claim to have handled the pandemic with finesse. Even so, Johnson’s government has been remarkably clunky. Tall claims of ‘following the science’ have been undermined by mangled communications. Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, initially survived a political uproar by driving halfway across the country during the lockdown, but the administration’s reputation for equity suffered immensely. Arguably, his recent resignation came too late.
Matters have been compounded by a fiendishly complex healthcare structure. The heroic efforts of the healthcare professionals in the frontline came despite the system and not because of it. Shortages of personal protection equipment and critical supplies dominated headlines. An inability to protect care homes was nothing short of a scandal.
The prime ministerial promise of a ‘world-beating’ contact tracing system has not yet crystallized either. Testing capacity increased but the post-summer spurt in demand was severely underestimated. Given the expected spike over the winter, the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) did warn that ‘prevalence could easily double during a few days of the festive season’. Again, it was a warning that the opposition leader Keir Starmer pressed the Tories to take seriously. As recently as last week though, the Labour leader was scorned for his attitude. But far from being ‘captain hindsight’, it is Starmer that seems to be playing ‘captain foresight’.
Coming to Brexit, the lack of an agreement with the European Union has compounded matters. With days left before the year end, a no-deal exit appears a real possibility. Far from a vision of sunlit uplands, the prospect of a chaotic split with higher tariffs and economic damage is understandably affecting the national mood. Given that Johnson was instrumental in scuppering the compromises mooted by his party colleague Theresa May, he is largely in a bind of his own making. The mutinous murmur from his backbenches is what he fears the most. On the European side, statesmanship has been largely absent. The crude calculation that Europeans will wait for the British to cave ignores economic harm on the continent too.
In Britain, opinion polls reflect a growing discomfort with the Tories. Last month, the YouGov polls revealed that for the first time in ages, Labour went ahead of the Tories. There is disquiet in the Tory shires and the backbenches that the party is losing its grip.
Caught between the Scylla of the pandemic and the Charybdis of Brexit, is a Johnsonian slide irreversible then? It is true that a turbulent year—which saw Johnson in intensive care—has conveyed the impression of listlessness. But Johnson has bounced back before. He has the undeniable gift of the optimist.
What should be the government’s key priorities? First, simplifying the structures of an inefficient state should be a prime focus. The UK’s healthcare department is a case in point. If the last financial crisis taught us that some financial institutions had become ‘too big to fail’, the pandemic has revealed that some public departments have become ‘too complex to deliver’.
This is not impossible to reverse. Deliverability should be at the heart of the government’s reformist mission. Second, championing economic freedom should be at the heart of its agenda. The irony, however, is that the voters that supported leave are more likely to reject globalization.
Yet, a post-Brexit Britain needs to eschew protectionism if it is to escape a vicious cycle of unemployment and decline. It is only through growth that Johnson’s promise to ‘level up’ forgotten areas of the country—the so called red wall—can be redeemed. Allied to this would be a competitive tax regime. The government should resist the urge to raise taxes at this perilous juncture. It will choke a recovery even before it has begun. Amid all the gloom, it is worth reminding ourselves that a mass covid vaccination effort is underway in the UK. Accelerating this drive holds the key to enable a political reset. Finally, the emphasis needs to shift to upskilling a population and upgrading national infrastructure.
The road ahead will not be easy. A potential winter of discontentment looms large. The onus is firmly on Johnson to double down on an agenda of transformation. He needs to take back control of the narrative. If he intends to ensure that a post-Brexit Britain can flourish and not merely limp along, the inescapable truth is that much work lies ahead in the new year.
Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator.
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