The UK’s Sinking Brexit Ship

Photograph Source: David Howard – CC BY 2.0

Boris Johnson and his Tory colleagues are playing a game that is doomed to fail where the twin threats of the Covid pandemic and Brexit are concerned. As the UK careens towards a No Deal Brexit, the “message” is that the economic and social disaster caused by a No Deal Brexit is really to be attributed to the pandemic, while another “message” is that the country will be “back to normal” by Christmas with regard to the pandemic, leaving the decks miraculously clear for a mighty effort to stem the calamitous No Deal Brexit.

“It is my strong and sincere hope”, BoJo Johnson told a Downing Street press conference, that the virus will be under such strong control that the country could see “a significant return to normality” from November.

Both messages are a con, which must surely be apparent even to a self-deceiver like to BoJo. It certainly is to EU leaders.

The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte added this twist to the Brexiter’s mantra “Brexit means Brexit” by adding “and hard Brexit means hard Brexit”. As has been clear all along, the EU is not going to give an inch to perfidious Albion in its divorce from the EU.

It soon became obvious that BoJo’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty did not get BoJo’s message. Within hours both men were telling the House of Lords science committee that social distancing is here to stay.

Whitty said: “[The virus] has not gone away. [The measures] need to continue for a long period of time”. Vallance added that “social distancing and hygiene measures will be necessary” given it was “highly likely” the virus would return, stressing that it was just a matter of when, not if, Covid “comes back in force” in several waves.

The truth is that there will be no return to a “pre-Covid normality” without levels of contact tracing that have never been achieved in the UK, as well as effective Covid security on public transport, and so on.

The current testing system, outsourced to the private companies Serco and G4S, fails to contact nearly a quarter of people who test positive. In one town in the north of England now dealing with a major outbreak of the virus, the testing app, touted as “world-beating” by BoJo, is failing to reach half of its close contacts.

The UK economy was in poor shape even before Covid struck, but the economy is now on the verge of flat lining.

National output dropped by a dismal 20.4% in April, and although economic forecasters predicted growth of 5.5% in May the actual figure turned out to be an insipid 1.8%. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says another major coronavirus outbreak in the UK could result in an unemployment rate of 15%.

The Office for National Statistics reports that 650,000 people have lost their jobs since lockdown began, and vacancies are at their lowest level since records began two decades ago. Up to 3 million UK jobs are now thought to be at risk because of unsustainable corporate-debt levels, and these firms are pleading for government bailouts.

The coronavirus crisis has left many UK businesses in a worse position to cope with a no-deal Brexit, according to the independent think-tank the Institute for Government. The Institute says that 3 out of 5 firms have not even begun to prepare for the finalization of the EU-UK separation on 31st December 2020 due to continued indecision about the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The minister for Brexit, Michael Gove, has confirmed that up to 5 sites in Kent (in the south of England abutting the English Channel) will be used as Brexit border facilities, with another 7 situated elsewhere in the country. Gove has already confirmed the purchase of a £705m/$942m site for a “Brexit border” centred on a vast lorry park in Ashford, Kent, where transport operators will have to fork out money on an hourly basis while they wait for customs clearance.

The profound irony is that Ashford is solidly pro-Tory and pro-Brexit— in the 2016 EU referendum it voted Leave 59.4% (with Remain at 40.6%). Property values in Ashford are expected to crash with the construction of the vehicle park, with its ensuing traffic bottlenecks and the stress it will place on local infrastructure and services.

The Brexiters of Ashford are already turning NIMBY, though understandably many Remainers have little sympathy for them.

So much for the Brexiter “taking back control” slogan.

BoJo suffered a major political defeat this week.

He had been sitting on a parliamentary report since before the December 2019 election which investigated Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election.

Releasing the Russian report is the task of the House Committee on Intelligence and Security, but BoJo had prevented it from meeting for 7 months. When he could no longer do this, BoJo tried to influence the committee’s leadership. In an act of egregious executive over-reach, he directed that the committee be headed by one of his flunkies, the error-prone former minister Chris “Failing” Grayling.

The committee has 9 members, 5 Tory and 4 belonging to opposition parties. In something of a coup, one of the 5 Tories, the independent-minded Julian Lewis, stood against “Failing” Grayling, and persuaded the 4 opposition-party members to vote for him.

BoJo’s hope was that Grayling would somehow be able to prevent the release of the Russian report, but Lewis, now the committee’s chair, has already chaired his first committee meeting and obtained unanimous agreement to publish the report within a week.

BoJo retaliated by having Julian Lewis kicked out of the parliamentary Conservative party.

Such is the state of democracy in Ukania.

So, what can lie ahead for Ukania?

The Thatcherite neoliberal “settlement” from 1979 onwards was a failed attempt to deal with the breakdown of the 1945 social-democratic settlement, premised as it was on a “managed capitalism”.

The current convergence of the consequences, mostly impossible to anticipate, of the continuing pandemic (and especially a projected Covid second wave), with an economic upheaval brought out by a No Deal Brexit, could create conditions for the overturning of the 1979 “give capitalism free rein” Thatcherite consensus.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Labour’s current Blairite leadership, under Keir Starmer, having eschewed Corbyn’s experiment in social democracy, is committed in so doing to the maintenance of Thatcherism, give or take a few palliatives not so far in evidence.

If the sting of a No Deal Brexit is not felt deeply by those who believe the EU is to blame for the UK’s decades-long economic and social decline (and this anti-EU refrain is the constant Tory message), the overturning of the Thatcherite consensus can be deferred.

For how long though?

History shows that events tend to proceed at their own pace, though sometimes with great rapidity.

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