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24 August 2020

Boris Johnson’s chronically inept government is about to face its biggest test

This autumn the PM must contend with the threats of mass unemployment, a second Covid-19 wave and a no-deal Brexit. 

By Martin Fletcher

Aspects of Boris Johnson’s clandestine holiday in a rented Scottish croft were mildly amusing. What sane landlord would trust such a charlatan with an honesty box for using the telephone? And what an astonishing shock of hair baby Wilfred sports just four months after his birth. 

I also found myself hoping, quite sincerely, that Johnson enjoyed a decent rest. That is not because I harbour benign feelings towards this uniquely rotten Prime Minister, but because he returns to face an autumn in-tray that makes the mountains of the Applecross peninsula look like molehills. Much as I loathe the man, it is emphatically not in Britain’s interests that he fails.

Within a week or so, Johnson has to ensure all schools re-open, the staggering incompetence of Gavin Williamson, his seemingly unsackable Education Secretary, notwithstanding. As he rightly says, failure to do so is “not an option”, especially after the A-level fiasco.

Like much of the rest of Europe, the UK faces at the very least a resurgence – if not a second wave – of the Covid-19 pandemic as the all-important R rate rises above one. That could well require regional lockdowns and a tightening of national restrictions in the absence of an effective test-and-trace system, especially if it coincides with a winter flu epidemic. Whether the Johnson-Cummings government still has the authority to enforce tighter restrictions remains to be seen. 

Even without fresh curbs, the country is already enduring the consequences of the deepest recession in memory. Thousands of job losses are being announced almost daily, and unemployment will soar when the furlough scheme that supports nearly seven million workers ends in October. At some point, moreover, there will be a terrible reckoning over the vast economic cost of the spring lockdown, with some combination of steep tax increases and deep spending cuts surely inevitable. 

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On top of all that there is a very real possibility that the Brexit transition period will end on 31 December with the UK having agreed no new trade deal with the European Union, a bloc which presently accounts for more than 40 per cent of all our exports and half our imports.

The seventh round of negotiations ended last week with scant evidence of progress, Johnson’s pledge to “put a tiger in the [negotiators’] tank” notwithstanding. Failure to reach a deal will mean disrupted supply lines, blockages at ports, shortages of food, fuel and medicine, tariffs, higher prices and much else besides, but our supremely cynical government evidently believes the public will not notice amid so much other economic mayhem.

In the meantime, ministers are frantically seeking face-saving trade deals with non-EU countries. None have yet been struck, despite the Brexiteers’ referendum claim that the world would be knocking at our proverbial door. We may or may not get one with Japan, which is presently the UK’s seventh largest market, but a deal with the US this side of November’s presidential election looks increasingly remote. And if Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump, we will return to what president Obama described as the “back of the queue”.

All of this will fuel an accelerating drive for Scottish independence that is likely to see Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP win an overwhelming mandate for demanding another referendum in next May’s Holyrood elections. A solitary prime ministerial holiday in Scotland will not halt that tide. Indeed, Johnson is so reviled north of the border that it is hard to see what he can possibly do to reverse it. It is also hard to see how he could refuse the SNP a second referendum when the repatriation of national sovereignty was the central premise of Brexit.

These are perilous times for Johnson. His “stonking” general election victory last December is now a distant memory. Tory backbenchers are growing increasingly restive. The Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sun and other members of the previously sycophantic Tory press are becoming increasingly critical as fiasco follows fiasco. The long-moribund Labour opposition is recovering. Dominic Cummings seems hell bent on wholesale revolution and the establishment’s destruction instead of addressing the pressing problems of the day. 

The challenges Johnson faces this autumn would test a competent government to its limit, let alone one as inexperienced, as demonstrably inept and as packed with unqualified second-raters as his. 

A Prime Minister who cannot even pitch a tent near his rented croft without trespassing on a neighbouring farmer’s land hardly inspires confidence either.

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