These are crucial weeks for Boris Johnson. Crucial for the country too. We are caught up in a perfect storm of a possible No Deal Brexit and an apparently resurgent pandemic.
On Brexit, we may be edging towards an agreement which will avert the perils of No Deal. But we’re not there yet, and within the next few days the PM will have to decide whether to accept an inevitable compromise.
Covid-19, despite the recent lockdown, is making a comeback in many parts of the country, most notably London and the South-East. Things don’t look so bright in the independent fiefdoms of Wales and Scotland either.
These are crucial weeks for Boris Johnson. Crucial for the country too. We are caught up in a perfect storm of a possible No Deal Brexit and an apparently resurgent pandemic
Each of these challenges could derail the strongest and most competent leader. Together they present a test that is probably more arduous than any faced by a British peacetime prime minister.
Is Boris up to it? I admit my opinion shifts. I admire the way in which he has refused to be pushed around by the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. He has looked like a PM of whom one might be proud.
The unanswered question is whether he will recognise the moment when a compromise becomes desirable. Does he really believe that Britain would ‘prosper mightily’ under No Deal. He can’t possibly know. It is a meaningless assertion.
And Covid? Until his Press conference yesterday afternoon, I was willing him on. There was reason to believe he had at last stood up to the doom-mongering scientists as he was attacked from every side.
Pictured: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Labour’s increasingly opportunistic leader, Sir Keir Starmer, had a swing at him during Prime Minister’s Question Time, accusing Mr Johnson of ignoring the medical advice. Sir Keir was far too slippery to say whether he would allow the five-day relaxation of rules to go ahead.
In recent days, scientists have lined up to criticise Boris. According to the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal in a rare joint editorial, ‘the Government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives’. Pretty extreme stuff from two normally restrained publications.
Even public opinion may not be on his side. A YouGov poll of 3,856 adults — a sizeable sample — found that 57 per cent of respondents believe that current rules should not be suspended over Christmas.
So the PM has been got at by people instructing him to ‘cancel Christmas’. It seemed from various reports in yesterday’s newspapers that he was determined not to be bullied. He would give us the interlude he had promised.
Lorries queue on the A20 road to enter the Port of Dover to board ferries to Europe
In the event, he stuck to his guns in the Press conference — but only just. With Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty (aka Professor Gloom) by his side, he urged us to enjoy a ‘Merry Little Christmas’ involving as little travel as possible or overnight stays. We were enjoined to show ‘extreme caution’.
None of this sounded an awful lot of fun. Whereas one had hoped he might celebrate people’s freedom to make up their minds what to do for five brief days, he sounded nervy and downbeat. If we wanted an enjoyable Christmas, we should wait until next year.
On the other hand, he was only offering us guidance. These were recommendations. Unlike Wales’s lugubrious First Minister, Mark Drakeford, Mr Johnson did not propose any new laws to make us behave over Christmas. Of course, he might not have got such legislation past increasingly rebellious backbench Tory MPs.
One could add that because millions of people have already made travel and other plans for Christmas, it was too late in the day for the Government to reverse the relaxation of rules during the festive season by changing the law.
Joyce Dowd, 94, receives the first of two injections with a dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine
In the Prime Minister’s defence, it’s true he said that it would be ‘frankly inhuman’ to ‘ban Christmas’. Totalitarian might have been a better word. I hope ‘banning’ Christmas was never on the Government’s agenda.
My impression was of a man who was making the best of a bad job. He would have preferred not to have championed the idea of a brief respite several weeks ago in the midst of lockdown, when it was hoped that infection rates would be lower than they have turned out to be.
In other words, as so often in this crisis, he appears to be led by events. He is doing the right thing — letting us have our brief experience of freedom, albeit while trying to make our flesh creep in the process. But he has not broken free of Professor Whitty and the scientists. They are still in charge.
How long can this go on? Mr Drakeford yesterday announced a lockdown in Wales immediately after Christmas. Professor Whitty said that the partial suspension of rules, even with all the Government’s dire warnings and advice, would ‘lead to an increase in hospitalisations and deaths’. It is surely likely that the Government will decree another lockdown in England in January.
Not that the previous lockdown, which ended at the beginning of December, seems to have had much effect in containing rising infection rates in London and the South-East.
Another lockdown would inflict more damage on an already weakened economy. More unemployment, more cancelled operations, more mental health problems, more bankrupt companies. The public finances, already under pressure unprecedented outside wartime, would take a further, possibly calamitous, hit.
And yet we can be practically certain that it will be proposed because this country is run by the Department of Health and scientists (with the cynical support of Labour) rather than the Government on the advice of practical economists.
Don’t we have a vaccine which might save us? So they say. But there are indications that it may not be made available as quickly as it should be. According to the National Audit Office, less than half the population will be vaccinated by the end of next year.
The test for Boris is whether he is content to follow a script written by the likes of Professors Gloom and Doom — or whether he is prepared to take charge of the clattering train, and instil the confidence and belief this country so desperately needs.
Over the past few weeks, Mr Johnson has often seemed a more substantial figure, at any rate in his dealings with Ursula von der Leyen and the EU. He has been his own man at last. This may be because he no longer has Dominic Cummings telling him what to do.
By the way, it is utterly outrageous that Cummings should have received a pay rise of some £45,000, about 50 per cent of his salary, last year. This is a preposterous reward for a man who, having breached the lockdown — without any subsequent show of contrition — did incalculable damage to the Prime Minister.
Does Boris realise that? I don’t know. He sometimes appears so genially disposed and boisterous while not always being fully engaged in the gritty business of government.
This is his moment — and the country’s future. If Boris can lead us out of this nightmarish pandemic rather than being led by the scientists, and if he can pull off an honourable deal with the EU, it will be a magnificent achievement. We will soon discover whether he is equal to the task.