As the country approaches three weeks of lockdown, over a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend, the full extent of the crisis is becoming clear. Whilst Johnson is recovering from the coronavirus and out of the ICU, the country is suffering from over 900 deaths a day and it’s not getting any better. And there is still confusion as to whether all related deaths, including for instance those in care homes, are being counted and if so how current they are.
One of the scientists/medical people that appear in the daily government briefings on the virus said early on that they would be happy to keep the death toll below 20,000, which sounded shocking at the time. It seems now that that target will not be reached. In fact at one point the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, predicted that the UK would see 66,000 deaths, marginally less than the total for UK civilian who lost their lives in the second world war. The organisation has since lowered the estimate to 37,500. Currently the death rate is thirty times the average for British non-combatants during WW2.
But this disaster, brought on by the lack of decisive action by the government for several weeks after the impact of the virus first became apparent, is not seen in the same way by everyone. At the news of Johnson’s move out of intensive care, but while around 900 deaths a day were being reported, goverment minister Nadine Dorries tweeted, in all seriousness, the following:
Let’s get one thing straight, the people of Britain do not want to leave the EU. All the evidence points to the fact that, if asked, the majority would choose to remain.
The last time the question was put to the country was in June 2016, more than three and a half years ago and it wasn’t even a fair fight. On that occasion 51.9% of voters chose the leave option, whilst 48.1% wanted to remain. Leaving aside the fact that there was little information on which to base a vote, what ultimately emerged was that Vote Leave broke electoral law. The organisation overspent by channelling funds through its youth organisation, as well as other transgressions. The Electoral Commission imposed fines and made referrals to the police. Vote Leave dropped an appeal against the £61,000 fine and in November 2019 the police handed a file on the organisation to the Crown prosecution Service. (The Information Commissioner’s Office also fined Vote Leave Limited £40,000 for sending out thousands of unsolicited text messages in the run up to the referendum.)
But in a chaotic campaign they weren’t the only groups to transgress. Other organisations fined by the Electoral Commission for offences under electoral law included the pro-Remain group Best For Our Future, the trade unions GMB and Unison, the Liberal Democrats, and Britain Stronger In Europe (the official Remain campaign group, subsequently known as Open Britain). The BBC also reported that the Constitutional Research Council was fined £6,000 for failing to notify the Electoral Commission about a donation to the Democratic Unionist Party during the referendum.
Then there is the possible impact of foreign interference in the vote. A 50-page report was compiled by the House of Commons cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee into allegations that Russia launched a major influence operation in 2016 in support of Brexit. Although apparently already approved by the intelligence agencies themselves, the dossier, which was sent to Downing Street last October, has still not seen the light of day.
So it was a close result after a corrupt campaign in an advisory referendum. Little enough reason for a fundamental change to the UK’s position in the world. In any country with a written constitution it would have taken a legally binding vote with at least a 60% majority to sign off on such a major constitutional change.
But what was striking about the referendum results was the difference in voting by age group and its implications. As the chart above from Statista shows, 73% of 18-24 year-olds voted to remain in the European Union, but 60% of the over 65s voted to leave. Even if the vote were a true representation of feelings at the time, sheer demographic changes suggested that as older voters died and young people come of voting age it wouldn’t be long before the pendulum swung the other way. Sure enough, helped by a dawning realisation of the implications of leaving the block, as far back as 2018 the BBC reported that “If there were to be a second referendum now, 52% would vote Remain and 48% Leave, an average of polls over the past three months suggests”. And that was two years ago.
As if to emphasise the point, there were three separate mass marches through London by those who were either against leaving the EU or who wanted another referendum. All three of these peaceful, family-friendly events were among the biggest ever seen in London, with estimates of up to one million people turning up for the final demonstration in October 2019. As far as I’m aware the only demonstration from those who wanted to leave the EU was an ill-tempered protest in Parliament Square in March 2019, the date originally proposed for withdrawal from the EU.
None of this would matter if the stakes were not so high. Think tanks have scrambled to assess just the economic impact of leaving the EU and the results are many and varied, although rarely good. One of the most authoritative comes from The EU in a Changing Europe, which used the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance trade model to calculate the financial implications of Johnson’s proposals. The study found that its most optimistic scenario would leave the public finances £16 billion worse off. The most pessimistic model forecasts a much greater impact on the public purse, of around £49 billion. Even this excludes the case where the country leaves with no deal at all and trades under World Trade Organization arrangements, still a possibility. In this case the loss of GDP would be in excess of £60 billion, or almost £1000 for every man, woman and child in the country.
The study concludes that much depends on the terms of any deal with the EU but “Nevertheless, it should be clear that under any plausible scenario the costs associated with Brexit’s potential economic effects are much larger than the savings from reduced contributions to the EU budget”. To add salt to the wound, the New European has, ironically, estimated that the cost of simply leaving the EU will, by the end of 2020, exceed the net cost of our membership over the previous 47 years. And that’s before we even leave!
There have been more positive views of the Brexit outcome, but generally based more on possibilities than probabilities, if not outright wishful thinking. It’s telling that the government’s own financial assessment of its Brexit bill avoids putting numbers to anything specific and is mostly confined to staffing costs for new departments to deal with post-Brexit bureaucracy.
Of course many of the impacts of leaving the EU are very difficult to measure. Free movement across 28 countries, joint European scientific research, the Erasmus student exchange programme and continent-wide police and security collaboration are just a few of a multitude of areas where the UK has benefitted from being part of a wide union of countries. Many of these links will be impossible to maintain or replace when we are out of the Union.
So how did a once (a long time ago) great nation, sink to the depths of this massive self-inflicted wound? The simple answer is the vaulting ambition of one Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. A man with the sense of entitlement only an Eton and Oxford education can instil and steeped in the sexism, vandalism and bullying that comes with membership of that most cringeworthy of university societies the Bullingdon club.
As a boy Johnson apparently said he wanted to be ‘king of the world’ and has spent most of his life trying to achieve it. So far he has managed to become an MP, to be elected Mayor of London and, most recently, has led the Conservative party to election victory with a significant majority in parliament. His modus operadi is bluff and bluster, leaving a trail of unanswered questions, broken promises and white elephants. Full details of his obfuscations and misdemeanours are readily available on the web, they’re too tedious and depressing to list here.
Leaving the EU was not a political conviction for Johnson but a means to an end. (He had apparently written two versions of his Daily Telegraph column, one for each possible outcome, and seemed shocked that the Leave campaign had prevailed.) But his single-minded approach to ‘getting Brexit done’ has been the route to the top. If Britain has to suffer as a result then that’s just collateral damage to his ambition. Suffice to say that he leads a divided country into an unknown future. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.
Johnson has achieved his ambition, although whether he will be able to hang on to the prize for a full five years remains to be seen. But his place in history is assured. He will be remembered for making the UK more insular and divided and ultimately weaker than ever before.