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:
While the new coronavirus was spreading across China and then Italy and Spain, the UK, under our Brexit-obsessed and otherwise dysfunctional government, went about it’s business as usual. When it did arrive on our shores the plan seems to have been to allow people – expected to reach 60% of the population – to get the disease so that a ‘herd’, and they actually used that word, immunity would emerge. It appeared that the vulnerable people in the herd would have to take their chances.
The one day someone did the sums. Not difficult. With a population of about seventy million and the overall mortality rate of 1-2% it means that the number expected to need hospital treatment far exceeds the capacity of the NHS. It’s even worse for older people, with a mortality rate of around 3% for 60-year olds up to 15% for those in their 80s. Hence the change of tack. At long last Johnson’s government faced up to the potential disaster and did what most other countries had already done. Clearly with reluctance, ‘suggested’ restrictions on movement were introduced until, finally, at the start of this week we entered the nearest thing to a lockdown that a Conservative government could conceive.
This is a nasty virus. Coughing and a fever are the initial symptoms and for the young and fit this can be very mild. But the older and more vulnerable the patient the more likely it is that shortness of breath will follow to the extent that a patient may require a ventilator to help them survive. But it emerged that, along with protective equipment for NHS staff, there is a significant shortage of ventilators, with only a few thousand available to the NHS where tens of thousands will be needed.
This is where the Tory government showed it’s true colours. When existing suppliers of ventilators offered to provide all the machines they had access to, the suggestion was not taken up. Nor did it the government agree to be part of a combined EU purchasing programme which would have speeded up delivery. Instead, Conservative-supporting manufacturers were enlisted to start producing ventilators from scratch. The worst example is the case of Dyson, the vacuum cleaner manufacturer, who’s founder, James Dyson, has been an avid Conservative fan. Dyson is a vocal supporter of Brexit, despite having moved his manufacturing base from Wiltshire to Singapore in 2002 and last year announced plans for his HQ to follow. His company is known for redesigning the wheel into something a lot more expensive. This ventilator redesign, funded by our government, will cause a delay and cost lives.
Now I’m seventy years old and more at risk of a bad outcome from coronavirus than the majority of the population. It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. I would prefer a few more years but I quite accept that there are many people that are more of a priority than me. But I don’t want to die gasping for breath because no ventilator is available, particularly if that’s due to many years of chronic underfunding of the NHS and putting business the way of your chums. If I die, the fault lies fairly and squarely with consecutive Conservative governments who have failed to give the NHS the funding it needs, seek every opportunity to favour their supporters and have cut corners on disaster planning ‘red tape’.
How did we end up like this? Why do people keep voting Tory?
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.