“Making It Up As They Go Along:” Boris Johnson and COVID-19

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

As I write (the weekend of 9-10 May), the UK’s death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has reached 31,855. The UK, unlike the US, has started counting deaths in care homes.

This toll is the highest in Europe, and the second in the world after the US. The UK has a fifth of the US’s population, so translating the UK figure into US terms would amount to 160,000 US deaths from the virus (the US’s death toll as of this weekend is a little more than 80,000).

Meanwhile, the Tory government’s catalogue of errors and oversights advances daily.

Channel 4 News obtained detailed stock lists revealing that almost 80% of respirators in the national pandemic stockpile were out of date when COVID-19 hit the UK.

The UK had to send about 50,000 coronavirus samples to the US after “operational issues” prevented them from being processed in British laboratories.

On 25 March, receiving flak for shortfalls in testing, but boasting in his typically mendacious fashion, BoJo Johnson said that the UK was doing better than other countries: “We are going up from 5,000 to 10,000 tests per day, to 25,000, hopefully very soon up to 250,000 per day”.

On 2 April, BoJo’s health minister Matt Hancock emerged from self-isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, stood at the daily press conference podium, and echoed his boss:

“I’m now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I’m determined we’ll get there”.

When 31 April came, lo and behold, the target of 100,000 tests a day was announced to have been met, though it soon became clear this figure had been massaged heavily. Up to 9th May it has only been met for 2 days.

In a way Hancock can’t be blamed for his deviousness. BoJo has failed so lamentably at his job that he and his handlers are setting-up this or that individual to be their fall guy, and the leading candidate for this is Hancock. Understandably, Hancock is already starting to protect his rear end.

Also being set-up for this role as fall guy(s) are BoJo’s medical and scientific advisers—torn between serving their charlatan political master and maintaining respect for their professional standards (which of course serve as a severely unfavourable indictment of their boss), they appear at the briefing podium with him wearing deeply fatalistic facial expressions.

They are Ukania’s equivalent of the US’s Drs Fauci and Birx, though mercifully BoJo has not so far asked Drs Whitty and Vallance if they think warm Clorox enemas could be an appropriate treatment for COVID-19.

Their only hope is that a future commission of inquiry into the pandemic will half-exonerate them.

Such Ukanian analogies with Trumpian America are not misplaced. BoJo’s party has a pro-business rightwing which wants everything to be reopened for business as soon as possible, deaths and all be damned.

These businesses must reward their shareholders, at the cost of their workers’ lives, and the wealthier shareholders in turn donate handsomely to the Tory party. It is impossible to be too cynical about this— these Ukanians conduct themselves in the same manner as Trump, who wants his now dormant resorts and hotels to reopen quickly so they can reenter his “revenue stream”.

But how is the Labour party, under its new leader Sir Keir Starmer, responding to the deeply and malignly incompetent Tories?

Starmer succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. I attended the Labour party conference in September last year as a member and have an enduring memory of the conference’s closing event.

Corbyn summoned his shadow cabinet to the platform and greeted them individually. There were hugs for the leftist stalwarts who stood by Corbyn while he was being traduced by the rightwing Tory rags, and undermined, as we know now in a shocking leaked account, by Blairites in Labour’s HQ.

But for Starmer there was a perfunctory handshake, a gesture no one in the conference hall could fail to notice.

In any event, Labour suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the Tories– campaigning exclusively on the mendacious three-word slogan “Get Brexit Done” — in the December 2019 election, and Corbyn resigned shortly afterwards.

Starmer, the rightwing Blairite candidate, prevailed after the convoluted selection process to choose Labour’s leader.

As a party member, I did not vote for Starmer in the leadership election. The last thing Labour needed, Corbyn’s putative failings notwithstanding, was another Tony Blair.

Another reasoning for not wanting Starmer is strategic. His staunch backing of a second referendum on UK membership of the EU was highly instrumental in Labour’s biggest election defeat for 80 years, when it lost 59 constituencies, many in Leave supporting areas. Former Labour voters in these Leave areas are probably not going to vote for Starmer the Remainer in a future election.

When he became Labour Starmer sacked about a dozen prominent “Corbynistas” from Labour’s frontbench team, while he promoted “soft left” Blairites to his shadow cabinet.

We’ll soon have a dozen or more books analyzing the failures of Corbyn and the Corbynista movement. This though was the crux, knowing Corbyn’s long history— while a member of parliament, he was never really a parliamentarian, believing as he did that real change could only come from forces outside the UK’s sclerotic parliamentary system.

In this Corbyn is absolutely right.

But elections are fought and won in this self-same parliamentary system, and though Corbyn’s Labour came close in the 2017 election, when the Tories lost their overall majority, the 2019 election was enacted on a different scenario.

In 2019, the combination of a concertedly hostile rightwing media; the now proven plotting against Corbyn by Blairites in the party who wanted him to lose the 2017 election (and by extension the 2019 election); and his “constructive ambiguity” on Brexit, while BoJo campaigned on his deceitful “Get Brexit Done” slogan; combined to do in the Corbynite movement.

Corbyn and his movement faced other problems in the 2019 election, primarily a manifesto that was right on the issues and popular in polls when they were not identified with Corbyn (renationalization of services privatized by the Tories since Thatcher, ending Tory austerity, safeguarding the NHS, greatly increased spending on education, massive investment in infrastructure, increased taxes on the rich, and so on), but which was a PR disaster when introduced.

This ambitious manifesto, while popular, was presented to the public as a totality, when finessing was required. There was little or no sequencing of these priorities, which the pro-Tory trash rags (Murdoch!) were then able to portray as “irresponsible tax and spend”, “magic money trees”, “nutty utopianism”, “Stalinism”, and so forth.

Coupled with Labour’s hedging on Brexit and Corbyn’s media-orchestrated unpopularity, the disordered introduction of the manifesto helped sink Labour.

The irony in the current pandemic is that the Tories, in order merely to keep the UK’s economy afloat, are having to spend sums hugely in excess of Labour’s spending commitments in its 2019 manifesto.

There is nary a mention of “magic money trees” this time, which probably demonstrates the fictive nature of such charges when they are foisted on Labour.

CounterPunchers will of course know that the basis of government spending is always a conjuring act, based not on economic “necessity”, but political expediency (just read Dean Baker and Michael Hudson in CounterPunch!). Then pose this very issue to Steve Mnuchin in the US, or Rishi “Rich Snack” Sunak, his UK equivalent who was a Goldman Sachs banker before he entered politics, and listen to their flummery and equivocations.

So how is Keir Starmer doing as Corbyn’s successor?

Starmer has a lot on his plate where internal party matters are concerned.

Starmer accepts donations from the UK’s Zionist lobby, and is under pressure from that lobby to resolve Labour’s antisemitism “crisis”. This “crisis” is a demonstrable hoax (polls show that the Tories have more members with antisemitic beliefs than their Labour counterparts), motivated by a desire to discredit and marginalize Labour’s many pro-Palestinian supporters, Corbyn included.

Starmer also needs to conduct and complete the investigation into the attempts, evidenced by leaked documents and transcripts, by Labour’s Blairites to undermine Corbyn in the run-up to the 2017 election. The problem here is that Starmer, though not implicated in the plot to undermine Corbyn, is himself a Blairite.

Starmer has been very low key so far, and disconcertingly so. He even pledged his support for Johnson in the latter’s stumbling attempts to deal with the pandemic!

Starmer’s successes have been in the virtual sessions of parliament’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) held so far. In these modified sessions the leaders of the two main parties face each other in the House, though without Members attending unless they maintain social distancing on the benches, while those not in attendance can pose questions on a CCTV link.

Starmer, who used to be the UK’s chief prosecutor before he entered politics, made mincemeat of the two Tories appearing so far.

The first session involved the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, standing in for his boss, with Raab performing like a fledgling lawyer being toyed around by a master of his profession.

Next came BoJo, and he was crushed in the equivalent of a law-court cross-examination. The low-key Starmer’s questions were directed at the Tories mismanagement of the pandemic.

In the past, BoJo dealt with Starmer’s Corbyn’s earnest but unforensic methods by relying on the massed ranks of Tory MPs behind him to shout-down Corbyn and howl their approval at their master’s bluster and bullshit.

Without his supporting cast due to the quarantine, BoJo was ripped to shreds as Starmer asked him obvious questions pointing to the sheer incompetence of BoJo and his colleagues.

When BoJo prevaricated, or did not give an answer, Starmer provided the answers himself, and simply asked the prime minister for his assent or dissent to the answer tendered on the latter’s behalf (an obvious court-room technique, known to everyone who watches courtroom dramas on TV).

A newspaper commentator said it was so easy for Starmer that he would have had a harder time defending a shoplifter in a local magistrate’s court.

To show that he was at least doing something, on Sunday BoJo announced a new slogan, #StayAlert, to replace the previous #StayHome. This induced much mockery on social media, since it is utterly meaningless— as a nurse pointed out, how do you “stay alert” regarding something you could not see, smell, taste, or hear? “Alert for what?”, asked someone else. To add to the confusion, a request for clarification produced the reply that the new slogan subsumed the old one, so Brits had to stay home after all!

At the same time BoJo announced a 5-tier alert system to rank the threat from COVID-19, designed to mirror the UK’s terror alert system, which ranks the threat to the public from “low” to “critical” and helps determine what protective measures should be followed. The current threat level of the pandemic will be classified on a scale of 1 to 5 in different parts of the country, using assessments made by a “joint biosecurity centre”.

As is the case with the terror alert system, experts said it was not evident how beneficial the scheme would be.

BoJo is caught between a rock and a hard place, as he is tugged one way by the pro-business right of his party, and the other by his scientific and medical advisers.

The outcome is confused messaging, coming at a time when China, Germany, and South Korea report an upsurge in new cases.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.