Brinkmanship or Bluster? On Brexit and Pandemic, Boris Johnson Leaves It Late

This undermined the government’s goal of curbing social contacts in the face of a new variant of the coronavirus that British officials said is spreading far faster than the original strain. In fact, the refugees from London are likely to spread the virus across the country, where 35,928 new cases were reported on Sunday.

It is more tactical when the Prime Minister pulls out a post-Brexit deal. With only 10 days to go before December 31st, there would be very little time for a review of an agreement in parliament, where pro-Brexit hardliners would keep a close eye on it. But with no margin for error, analysts say Mr Johnson may have to compromise to prevent an economically ruinous breakdown in talks.

“The outlines of a possible deal have been known at least since last March,” said Sam Lowe, trade expert at the Center for European Reforms. “But the prime minister’s approach is to take difficult decisions until the last minute in the hope that something better will happen – as his approach to Covid-19 shows.”

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University in London, said: “The price for this psychological flaw and its political consequences is paid in lost lives in the case of Covid. In Brexit, livelihoods could be lost if some companies go under due to the uncertainty caused by the delay in decision-making. “

With the UK less than two weeks away from leaving the single market and customs union, UK businesses still have no idea whether their goods will be subject to tariffs when they are exported to continental Europe or Ireland. That could make car factories unprofitable or put some farmers out of business.

Trade talks continued in Brussels on Sunday with no sign of a breakthrough. The two sides are mostly haggling over fishing rights, but there are signs that Mr Johnson is already bowing to the European Union’s broader demand for Britain to accept long-term restrictions on its competition policy and state aid to industry.

Regarding the pandemic, critics say Mr. Johnson’s scattershot policies have undermined public confidence in the government. He has ruled out bans repeatedly, only to reverse course on the claim that the scientific evidence has changed. The mixed messages have left many confused and cynical about the rules.

In the recent U-turn, Mr Johnson cited new evidence that the variant was up to 70 percent more transmissible than the original virus – data he said was presented to his cabinet on Friday. Independent scholars generally have concerns about the variant. But UK health officials said Sunday that they first identified the variant in October from a sample taken in September.


Dec. Dec. 20, 2020 at 10:46 am ET

The government first announced the variant last Monday – and feared it could spread faster – when it placed London and other parts of southern and eastern Britain in the then highest levels of restrictions. Two days later, Mr. Johnson reiterated his promise to relax the December 23-27 restrictions so families can get together for Christmas.

When the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Keir Starmer, proposed in Parliament that Mr Johnson reconsider this plan, the Prime Minister ridiculed him. “I wish he had the courage just to say what he really wanted to do,” said Mr Johnson, “which means canceling the plans people have made and canceling Christmas.”

Now, of course, the prime minister has done just that – only he waited three more days with more people making travel plans. On Sunday, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Austria banned flights from the UK.

Mr Starmer predictably faded into criticism, saying that Mr Johnson was “so afraid of being unpopular that he won’t be able to make difficult decisions until it’s too late”.

The Prime Minister had given a glimpse into his fears earlier this week when he alluded to Oliver Cromwell holding Christmas celebrations during the ascetic days of the Puritan movement in England in the mid-17th century. The British newspapers, which had set Cromwell’s precedent in recent weeks, wasted no time in tagging Mr. Johnson with it after announcing the Christmas ban.

Surprisingly, the tough measures themselves may not be unpopular. A poll by research firm YouGov following Mr Johnson’s announcement on Saturday found that 67 percent of those polled were in favor of additional restrictions. But 61 percent of people said the government handled the rollout poorly.

According to analysts, Mr Johnson has been pressured by the same lawmakers in his Conservative Party that are likely to oppose a trade deal with the European Union. In this respect, the pandemic and the Brexit talks have a connection.

Because his mismanagement of the lockdown rules has angered some conservative lawmakers, they could now calculate that he can’t afford any further backlash in parliament by concluding a trade deal with the European Union that would be unpopular with die-hard Brexiters.

Mr Johnson has navigated swarms like this during his political career. His deadline mentality, developed during his time as a newspaper reporter and columnist, has sometimes led to smart decisions.

For example, he wavered for weeks before endorsing Britain’s exit from the European Union and even writing essays discussing both sides of the subject. It was a roll of the dice that pays off if it gives him a path to Downing Street.

Overall, analysts continue to assume that Mr Johnson will come to terms with the European Union in the next few days. By leaving the final decision so late, the Prime Minister has increased the likelihood that, as with the Christmas lockdown, he will have no choice but to accept the offer on the table.

“Johnson’s technique for dealing with problems is to get them out of control and build them to a point of sufficient crisis where delay is no longer sustainable,” wrote Rafael Behr in a column for The Guardian. “That way, it becomes perversely easier to choose because there are fewer options.”

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