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    Boris Johnson has taken the wrong economic lesson from the crisis – now Britain is facing an economic abyss – from the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit

    November 2020

    Boris Johnson attempted to look beyond the Covid-19 pandemic at the Conservative party conference last month by warning against drawing “the wrong economic conclusion from this crisis”. For those on the left, who think everything can be funded by uncle sugar the taxpayer”, the UK prime minister Johnson said,” there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it”. Get on with it?!

    This crude characterization of how innovations come about has deeply worrying implications. It is the wrong economic vision for the post-pandemic recovery the UK-trust me-desperately needs; the same vision that led to Britain’s unpreparedness in the first place. This is not about left versus right, or public versus private. It is about working together to shape a symbiotic innovation system fit to solve the greatest challenge of our times. But working together Mr. Johnson means together – not alone!

    The UK’s constitutional framework has been pieced together, picked apart and restitched over centuries. Northern Ireland’s parliament has existed since the partition of Ireland in 1921, although it has been opened and shut down throughout the region’s tumultuous history. In modern times, Wales and Scotland were, until 1998, essentially governed by British government departments under the control of a Westminster appointed secretary of state.

    This changed when the Scots and Welsh voted for former prime minister Tony Blair’s devolution plans. Both secured their own parliaments, first minister and cabinets, along with substantial powers over domestic legislation, most significantly health. England, meanwhile, by far the largest and richest state of the union, has no legislature of its own, relying instead entirely on the Westminster parliament.

    But while devolution visibly altered the daily lives of Scottish and Welsh citizens, creating different rules on everything from alcohol pricing to university tees, this was largely unnoticed in England. At the same time, the Labour party in Scotland collapsed, leaving the Scottish National party – which by the way does not wish to be part of the UK at all – in control of government for the past 13 years. The four different governments are controlled by five different parties.

    Even before the pandemic the 2016 vote to leave the EU had already set in train a looming constitutional crisis. Although Scots had narrowly rejected independence in 2014, Brexit, which they opposed by almost two to one, reignited the vision and polls now shows a majority for separation.

    The pandemic in my opinion has highlighted the uneasy and unequal nature of the UK’s devolution settlement. It came as a particular shock to many in England, not least as the other first ministers began holding separate daily TV briefings. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, found that he not only had less control over the UK’s levers of power,but was also force to share decision-making with political opponents.

    And the frictions were not limited to the devolved parliaments. Since 2000, nine of the city-regions of England, including London, Greater Manchester,the West Midlands and Liverpool, have elected mayors with limited powers but a substantial mandate. They found themselves bypassed over decisions affecting their own regions.

    Coronavirus presented a unique challenge: a UK-wide crisis with no respect for borders but in an area where policy was not controlled from the centre.

    Things started fairly smoothly. Mr. Johnson’s government recognized the need for co-operation and the devolved leaders were keen to work together. In February, the UK’s emergency Civil Contingencies Committee meetings, or Cobra, led by health secretary Matt Hancock, included the health ministers of the devolved nations. The chief medical officers of the four nations have worked together throughout. As the crisis grew, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, declared she “could not be less interested” in normal politics.

    Mr. Drakeford, an opponent of Welsh independence, was initially pleased as first ministers were invited to join the Cobra meetings. But it did not last: “Once the immediate crisis was over, that went into reverse,” he said.

    In a May 10 televised address laying out his plans for lockdown easing, Mr. Johnson did not say that the measures applied only to England. Hours earlier, Ms Sturgeon had appealed for “clarity of message”.Decisions that are being taken for one nation only…should not be presented as if they apply UK-wide,” she said. Others were also unimpressed. In the first days of the crisis, much of the focus was on London, where the outbreak had hit hardest. Yet Sadiq Khan, the capital’s Labour mayor, was not invited to the UK’s emergency meetings until mid-March.

    When Mr. Khan was finally invited, he discovered that crucial information was not being shown with him. “I got a phone call, I think on march 16, inviting me to a Cobra later that day, and that was the first time I discovered that the government had data showing London had double the number of Covid-19 cases as the rest of the country put together,” he says. “But I wasn’t aware of the data the government clearly had.”

    Some Conservative ministers meanwhile felt Ms Sturgeon was rushing to be first to announce measures that were already planned for England, in order to give the impression of more sure-footed leadership. They also believed Scotland’s leader was playing politics with the crisis, sheltering behind UK policy and the Treasury’s furlough scheme while using her own televised daily briefings to advance the SNP’s agenda.

    If it was, her strategy has paid off. An Ipsos Mori poll in May found that more than three-quarters (78%) of Scots thought their government had handled the crisis well so far compared with only a third (34%) who said the same of the UK government.

    During the lockdown phase from March, the four nations of the union worked in reasonable harmony, but Mr. Johnson’s unilateral softening of the lockdown message in early May shattered the appearance of unity.

    Mr. Drakeford feels it keenly: “A lot of people in our population are clustered along the border. We’re just the opposite of Scotland, where most people in Scotland live in the central belt,” he says. “So it’s always a problem for us, and it has been a frustration persuading the prime minister to be explicit about when he’s making announcements that apply to England, not the UK.”

    Being explicit about the limits of his powers was not something Mr Johnson instinctively liked: “That leaves people having to come and mop up behind,” says Mr. Drakeford. The headaches caused by these confusions were neatly captured in May when Wales still had a five-mile limit on travel and England had lifted its own.

    The frictions visible between the constituent nations of the UK were equally visible within England itself, where the pandemic asked questions of piecemeal governance structure. As mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has more powers even than Mr. Khan but has not been invited to Cobra meetings at all, even though he is a former Labour health secretary. Mr. Burnham showed his real powers last month to Mr. Johnson. Between March and September, the government of the United Kingdom spent 210 billion Pound supporting its economy through the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Nation Audit office in London. That figure covers off the expense of some 190 measures introduced by ministers sitting around the cabinet table under Boris Johnson, spending on things like emergency job support, more funding for the National Health Service (NHS), business grants and the like. It’s roughly a quarter of what would be spent in a normal year by the government. The figure is in my opinion very probably much more than that now, given that it was added up and released on September 8. A week now seems like an eternity in this time of coronavirus.

    But perhaps the most expensive kit for the Johnson government now will be the paltry sum of 75 million pound – money that it would not commit to the Greater Manchester region to help with the costs of moving the city and area beyond into Tier 3 – the strictest coronavirus lockdown phase in the new regimen formulated by White hall.

    For 11 days, Andy Burnham has led 10 separate borough leaders and Members of Parliament from both the ruling Conservative and opposition labour parties in refusing to move to Tier 3 unless Johnson supplied the 75 million pound in extra funding. Acrimonious talks, on-and-off negotiations and a string catcalling during appearances on British airwaves failed to end the impasse.

    At one point in the stand-off, the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police wrote a letter saying that his force wouldn’t enforce the Tier 3 restrictions unless it had the support of mayor Burnham. If you’re thinking that Burnham was being irresponsible or simply grandstanding – Cabinet office minister Michael Gove angrily accused him of playing party politics – then consider that the councils of Lancashire, which moved to Tier 3 last month, were given 42 million pound to cover supplemental costs. If politics does enter it, the Johnson government only said it had given 12 million pound to Lancashire. That might have been a crude attempt to force Burnham’s hand. If it was, it quickly backfired, with the mayor of Pendle saying the 12 million pound was actually 42 million pound – 30 million pound more than the government officially acknowledge at the time. That’s in my opinion scandalous.

    Liverpool was the first city to be moved to Tier 3. There, gyms were closed as part of the restrictions. In Lancashire, now too in Tier 3, gyms are permitted to open. It’s just one example of inconsistencies and mixed messages of Johnson’s leadership style that are driving people in northern England around the bend. Does it mean there are different levels of Tier 3 where different rules apply. It’s bad enough in my opinion that each of the four nations that together make up the UK have their own local rules, but when the government in London that’s supposed to be responsible for lockdown rules in England makes a big deal of its new three-tier system – and then allows for deviations within neighbouring districts – is it any wonder tempers are frayed?

    During much of his early leadership and certainly in last December’s general election campaign – that seems like a century ago now- Johnson made a great deal of promising to “level up” spending for the north of England and “Get Brexit Done”. Now, given the stand-off and Johnson’s decision to exert his authority and impose Tier 3 anyway, that leveling up talks seems very hollow indeed.

    In Northern Ireland, where Covid-19 rates exceed 900 per 100,000 in Derry and Strabane the province is locked down. Scotland has locked down its central belt and has far stricter rules on masks and mingling in place than south of border. And in Wales, the nation is locked down for at least two weeks while visitors from elsewhere in the UK are prohibited from entering. There has been no fear from the leaders in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast of imposing so-called “circuit-breaker” measures. Not so in England, and the failure of his government to get and keep a grip of the situation in England.

    But theatrics and brinkmanship have become a wearyingly familiar part of Mr Johnson’s tactics in fighting Covid-19 as well as Brexit. Downing Street’s declaration last month that talks on a future trade accord were “over” appears a reprise of Boris Johnson’s tactics in exit talks a year ago: threaten no deal, use that as political cover to make concessions, then sell the final agreement as a triumph for toughness. The prime minister’s claim that the UK is ready to go it alone when the transition period ends in December is in my opinion surely a bluff. Brussels knows that. The danger is that miscalculations blow up the talks despite desire for a deal. That would be worse for the UK-bat, on top of a resurgent pandemic, it would damage the EU too.

    Both parties in my opinion share blame for the current impasse. Mr. Johnson had raised the stakes by threatening to “move on” if there was no agreement until the last EU summit. When, despite recent progress, a deal remained elusive, EU leaders called his kent. But they tumbled the diplomatic footwork. The summit’s concluding statement implied all concessions most come from the UK. A pledge to intensify talks was removed, apparently to avoid the EU and its lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, appearing to be dancing too much to Mr. Johnson’s tune.

    The UK premier has not made things easier by adopting a disingenuous narrative: that the EU is unwilling to grant Britain the “Canada-style” trade deal it seeks, and an “Australia-style” arrangement is acceptable. In reality, the UK wants in my opinion an accord that goes beyond the Canadian model in key areas. Britain’s much closer proximity and higher trade volumes with the EU mean Brussels must take steps to ensure it does not become an unfair offshore competitor. The Australian model is in essence a euphemism for no deal. Unhappy with its current terms, Canberra is even now trying to negotiate an EU free trade agreement. A year ago, Mr Johnson may have calculated that risking an EU exit without a withdrawal agreement – with all the economic damage that would cause – was politically tenable given his pledge to “Get Brexit Done”. Today, coronavirus threatens hundreds of thousands of jobs because of poor leadership. Despite the prime minister’s narrative, even many Brexit supporters will fail to understand why a trade deal the government once claimed would be the easiest in history could not be done.

    Mr. Johnson already struggles to explain why the arcana of state aid rules or the need to safeguard fisheries – 0.1% of the economy – are sufficient to trigger a rift that would slap hefty EU tariffs on businesses from car-makers to livestock farmers. Tellingly, both pro-Brexit chancellor Rishi Sunak and cabinet office minister Michael Gove are privately pressing him to come to terms.

    An all-or-nothing summit in November might after a last desperate roll of dice to concoct such a deal. Fail-failure is a very distinct and real option right now – and World Trade Organization tariffs come into effect in January 1, meaning an immediate costly punch to the solar plexus of punch-drunk British consumers weakened by coronavirus and an economy in free fall.

    About 1.7 million Brits rely on the automotive sector for a living right now. How many will there be this time next year if a 10% tariff on UK auto exports is imposed as soon as the clock strikes midnight on December 31?

    In 2019, the EU as a whole accounted for 43% of UK exports with goods worth 300 billion pound mostly going across the channel – 38 billion pound went to Ireland. Trade going the other way from the EU accounted for 51% of British in ports, worth 372 billion pound.

    While the figures are for 2019, the reality is that coronavirus will only have made the situation worse in 2020 – and a no-deal Brexit even worse still come 2021. And in my opinion it is all of Britons’ own doing. It is the Brexiteers in their delusions of British grandeur that has brought this economic pestilence to their shores.

    Chaucer’s pilgrims walking to Canterbury might have survived their contemporary plagues: Try living in Kent come New Year’s Day. The country will effectively become off limits to truck drivers heading to the English channel ports of Dover, Folkestone, Ramsgate and Margate, or to the Eurotunnel road-rail transfer facility at Cheriton.

    A no-deal Brexit, should the talks fail will mean that there is a customs border down the Irish Sea separating England, Scotland and Wales from Northern Ireland. What’s more British truck drivers will need a permit to enter Kent. The country will effectively become a no-go area for the logistics and trucking industry – a sector that represents about 11% of the British economy and employed nearly 320,000 drivers in 2018.

    There is a fear that a no-deal scenario will mean the roads and motorways in Kent will become clogged with trucks waiting to be processed on the other side of the channel – conservative estimates reckon 7,000 lorries backed up at any given time. The Conservative government has ran practice exercises, and now Conservative ministers have decided that truck drivers will need a “Kent Access Permit” to cross into the county.

    Arrangements are already in place for police and existing roadside number plate recognition cameras to enforce the permits. As things stand now, the government estimates that only one-in-five businesses that export to Europe are actually ready for that no-deal scenario. It thinks that as few as one-third of trucks heading to Europe would actually have their paperwork in order to be able to pass through ports and checks on the EU side of the channel – hence the potential long lines of trucks blocking all progress through Kent.

    The real rub is that it didn’t have to be like this. There was always a provision for the current transition period between the UK and the EU to be extended to the end of 2021 under the Withdrawal Agreement that was negotiated between Brussels and Boris Johnson. With coronavirus decimating the economies of all in early summer, Johnson decided that there was no need for such an extension and declined to activate the clause. That’s just one of many reasons – all of Britain’s doing – why they are in such a mess and why time is so pressing.

    Last month, after the formal period of negotiations between both sides ended and failed to reach an agreement on the future EU-UK relationship, Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen chatted over video link and approved one more month of talks.

    The differences between both sides are still very significant – the consequences of failing to do so are even more so.

    What tales would Chaucer tell now?

    In my opinion a path to resolving remaining sticking points is emerging. After giving some ground on state aid – notably on the idea of an independent regulator – there is scope for the UK to move further and propose an adjudication mechanism for settling disputes. It could also provide cover for the EU to temper demands to preserve the status quo or access to British fishing waters. EU capitals will need to allow Mr. Johnson some scope for face-saving. Even France’s tough-talking Emmanuel Macron hinted at room for compromise on fisheries.

    The need to persuade voters they are acting in their best interests means both the UK and EU have reason to hang tough in the talks. With a pandemic raging, however, time is running short for melodrama. The penultimate chapter of the Brexit saga has ended in suspense. Now both sides need to find a resolution in the final act.