In the neo-Churchillian peroration to his nationally televised address on 23 March, Boris Johnson urged the British people to “join together to halt the spread of this disease, to protect the NHS and to save many, many thousands of lives”.
He continued: “I know that as they have in the past, so many times, the people of this country will rise to the challenge and we will come through it stronger than ever. We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.”
However, Johnson would be in a much stronger position to unite and rally the country at this time of national emergency if he had not spent his past eight months as Prime Minister, and past four years as a champion of Brexit, being so intensely partisan, so deeply divisive, so cavalier with the truth and so contemptuous of those who believe that leaving the European Union is a monumental error. During the first two months of the year, he and Dominic Cummings appeared obsessed with confronting the BBC, the judiciary and the civil service, while doing precious little to ward off the looming pandemic.
So here is a constructive suggestion. It is too much to hope that Johnson will decide, in the light of the global economic collapse which the pandemic has triggered, that the UK is reckless to cut itself adrift from the rest of Europe at such a perilous time, and that Brexit is an ideological luxury from a bygone era that should now be jettisoned. What he can and should do is announce, immediately, that the UK will seek an extension to the Brexit transition period due to end on 31 December.
Incredibly, the Prime Minister appeared to rule out that course of action when questioned during his daily press conference on 18 March. “There is legislation in place that I have no intention of changing,” he said, referring to a provision that Downing Street rashly inserted into the EU Withdrawal Bill which makes it illegal to seek an extension request.
But Johnson will have no choice. He will have to repeal that provision. The timetable for negotiating a new trading relationship with the EU was alarmingly tight even before the present crisis. Now it is completely impossible. Nobody in this country, or in Brussels, has time to focus on anything but the battle against coronavirus. Nor will they for months to come.
In the absence of an agreement, Britain will crash out of the European single market and customs union at the end of the year with no alternative trading arrangements in place. Even the most rabid Brexiteer, the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg or Mark Francois, must realise that is now unthinkable.
When this country finally emerges from the coronavirus crisis, hopefully this summer, it will be up to its neck in debt and fighting to prevent a deep recession turning into a Great Depression. What is left of British business and industry will be on its knees.
Does anyone seriously believe the government should then administer the death blow by cutting supply chains from the continent, triggering tariffs on our exports and willfully disrupting access to our largest market?
After such a turbulent and traumatic year, would anybody really want the food and medicine shortages, price rises and civil unrest foreseen by the government’s own “Yellowhammer” contingency planners in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
Now that the government seems to be listening to experts again, should it not heed its own Office for Budget Responsibility which – even before coronavirus caused such economic devastation – forecast that a no-deal Brexit would shrink the economy by 2 per cent and increase annual borrowing by £30bn?
Johnson should follow the lead of Rishi Sunak, his Chancellor, who declared that “this is no time for ideology” as he unveiled the second of his three vast economic rescue packages last week. The Prime Minister must know he will be forced to seek an extension sooner or later. Were he to do it now, he would offer a desperately-needed scintilla of relief to Britain’s beleaguered businesses and industry.
He would also be in a much stronger position to stir the country for the momentous days ahead. He would be seen as a real leader – one who has finally, and very belatedly, risen above narrow partisan interests in order to put those of his country first.