First thoughts: Splits in the cabinet, one year of Test and Trace, and post-Covid nuptials

The debate over the Australia trade deal is just the first skirmish: if cheap Aussie lamb can split the cabinet, who knows what chlorinated American chicken will do.

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One of the core arguments for Brexit was that it would enable the UK to increase free trade with the rest of the world, reducing costs for consumers with a flood of competitively priced imports. Another was that a Leave vote would enable British farmers to thrive by protecting the domestic market and upholding high UK food standards.

There comes a point where you have to pick one of these arguments. Five years on, that point has arrived and civil war has broken out among the Tory ranks over a new trade deal with Australia.

Do you side with the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, who has been pushing for Australian farmers to be granted tariff-free access to UK markets? Or with the Environment Secretary, George Eustice (a former farmer and ardent Brexiteer), who is worried about the damage Australian meat imports could do to the UK farming industry?

Truss seems to have won the debate, with a free-trade offer made to Australia on 21 May. But this is just the first skirmish, a chance to draw the battle-lines in preparation for negotiations with the US. If cheap Aussie lamb can split the cabinet, who knows what chlorinated American chicken will do.

Better late than never

Happy birthday to the Test and Trace system, which turns one on 28 May. In celebration, the government is piloting a new scheme to increase support to those self-isolating. Nine areas will receive funding for providing accommodation for people in crowded households, for example, or offering a “buddy” service for anyone struggling with their mental health.

This all sounds sensible, so why has it taken a year for someone in Whitehall to think of it? Indeed, why were £500 grants for people who can’t afford to miss work due to isolation only introduced in September? There is no point spending a budgeted £37bn testing and tracing if people lack the resources to isolate when­­ they test positive for Covid-19.

Government messaging throughout the pandemic has repeatedly placed the blame for transmission rates on reckless individuals. So who is responsible for the emergence of a support scheme 12 months late?

[see also: Devi Sridhar: The UK needs a zero-Covid strategy to prevent endless lockdowns]

Hearts and minds

Good news for young people in France, who are being given €300 each to spend on cultural activities. The Culture Pass is available to all 18-year-olds, who have two years to spend it – on museums, theatre tickets, music lessons, books and art equipment.

President Macron hopes it will help drive France’s cultural revival post-Covid. It’s a refreshing sentiment, especially when the UK’s Education Secretary is dismissing arts degrees as “dead-end courses”.

France, coincidentally, came second in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest with a powerful ballad that captured Europe’s hearts. I’m not suggesting this was down to its government’s support of the arts. I’m just pointing out that Britain’s patently uninspiring entry received no points at all.

Tying the knot

Like Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds, I am also planning a post-Covid wedding for 2022. I don’t have the option of marrying at Chequers (sadly I’m not engaged to someone with access to a 16th-century manor house), but I’m grateful to them for setting a date; it’s reassuring to know the government has an extra incentive to give large events the green light by then.

I’m appreciative, too, of the social progress Johnson and Symonds made by leaving it this long to legally commit. A Labour prime minister would never have got away with it – the voices warning of societal collapse and decrying the assault on British values embodied by an unmarried couple in No 11 would have been too deafening.

Now a Tory PM and his girlfriend have blazed the trail, they have denied Conservatives the opportunity to clutch their pearls when future leaders bring their less traditional relationship models to Downing Street. I imagine it will be a while before we see a polyamorous triad move in (there aren’t enough bedrooms, anyway), but I’m still chalking it up as a win against the puritans. 

Rachel Cunliffe is deputy online editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism

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