Archive for the ‘Brexit Transition’ Category

Boris Johnson’s tax trap

LONDON — When all this is over, Boris Johnson will face a dilemma.

While the world is currently in fire-fighting mode — and the British prime minister is quite literally battling COVID-19 himself — eventually the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic consequences of mitigating it will have to be addressed.

Johnson — who had hoped to lead the U.K. into the post-Brexit era with increased public spending fueled by higher borrowing — will instead find himself balancing the books after a deep economic shock.

Like his old school foe and predecessor David Cameron, Johnson will be a post-crisis prime minister.

Cameron responded to the aftermath of the financial crisis by cutting spending. Johnson, who vowed during last year’s election to reverse the austerity that has defined Conservative governments since 2010, may have little political room to do the same. An anxious British public have rarely been more grateful for their public servants, especially those working on the frontline of the National Health Service. It would be a brave prime minister who took the knife to public services again.

No-one knows how or when the coronavirus outbreak will end, but one thing is already certain: The economic consequences will be huge.

At the same time, the imperative to balance the books and ensure sound government finances will be greater than ever in a post-pandemic world where the U.K.’s vulnerability to sudden, unexpected economic crises and the need to save for a rainy day will be more obvious than ever.

That could leave just one option, which Conservative prime ministers never like to entertain: raising taxes.

Cost of corona

No-one knows how or when the coronavirus outbreak will end, but one thing is already certain: The economic consequences — as well as the social impact — will be huge.

The big state is back, with the U.K. government committing to pay up to 80 percent of salaries (capped at £2,500 per month) of workers whose employers otherwise could not afford to keep them on. Welfare payments are expected to soar with more than 500,000 new claims on the universal credit benefit made since last week, and the government has, in effect, temporarily nationalized the railways.

Economists at Morgan Stanley estimate the national economy could contract by 5 percent this year. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank said on Thursday that such an outcome would force government borrowing above £175 billion, more than eight percent of national income and triple what was forecast in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget just two weeks ago.

About 40 percent of that increase would result from the cost of the government’s bailouts, and the rest from the economic downturn hitting revenues and adding to government spending, the IFS said.

Ian Mulheirn, a former Treasury official and chief economist at former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Institute For Global Change think tank, said governments were effectively facing up to the consequences of — quite rightly — imposing deliberate recessions on their economies.

“The deficit is likely to explode and public debt levels will rise quickly — as they should while we put the economy into deep freeze,” Mulheirn said. “The scale depends on how long the lock-down is needed for and whether there are other outbreaks later in the year.”

“But this is happening at a moment when we’re all much more aware of the role of the state in stabilizing the macroeconomic situation in the face of shocks that — as we’ve just been reminded — could come from anywhere.”

Far from being able to cut public spending to balance the books, Mulheirn believes the government will come under “intense pressure” to increase spending further.

“This is a world away from what small-state conservatives would have imagined they’d be overseeing in government” — Mike Brewer, deputy chief executive of Resolution Foundation

“Voters are now even more aware of the importance of public services — the NHS, social care, Public Health England and the welfare safety net in particular, but others too: the army handing out food, [and] everyone finding out how hard it is to teach a 7-year-old,” he said.

On top of that, government may find it difficult, having introduced additional welfare spending as an emergency measure, to take that cash away from some of the country’s poorest people when the crisis is over. Increasing the main unemployment benefit by £20 a week to help people through the crisis, for example, had “unwound decades of successive cuts to its value,” said Mike Brewer, deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation think tank.

“It may not be so easy to return its value back to a 30-year low next year,” Brewer said. “More broadly, as more many people experience the U.K.’s social security safety net, often for the first time ever, it could prompt a wider attitudinal shift towards making the system more generous, and tailored to fit the needs of people who often find themselves receiving it in tough circumstances.”

Taxing times

The twin pressures — delivering on promises of improved public services without borrowing so much that the government has no fiscal firepower left for the next crisis — lead Mulheirn and Brewer to conclude that higher taxes will be the only lever government has left to pull.

Sunak has already hinted at tax rises on the self-employed (a totemic issue that former Chancellor Philip Hammond tried — unsuccessfully — to grapple with in 2017).

On Thursday, Sunak said that a major package of government support for the self-employed to see them through the crisis made it “harder to sustain the argument” that they should be taxed at a lower rate than employees. More broadly, he said the U.K. faced a future discussion on “how best we all come together … to right the ship and make sure we get everything back on track again.”

According to Brewer, “higher taxes will be needed to service and ultimately reduce our deficit.”

“This is a world away from what small-state conservatives would have imagined they’d be overseeing in government,” he said. “But the coronavirus is likely to have changed a lot of assumptions about how our society and economy operates.”

Robert Colville, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a co-author of the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto, agreed that the crisis “will certainly leave us with a smaller economy, higher debt and larger state. In its aftermath, people will surely want more security.”

However, he said a “left-wing fantasy of vastly swollen state and vastly higher taxes would be the best way to crush any recovery at birth.”

“There is a difference between a large state and a robust and competent one,” he said. “Over the years, there’s been a fairly consistent ceiling in terms of the amount of tax the government can extract from the economy — usually significantly below what ministers want to spend.”

The government might want to reconsider the wisdom of the very hard Brexit according to Ian Mulheirn, Institute of Global Change’s chief economist | Leon Neal/Getty Images

He pointed to polling by YouGov for the think tank’s Make Work Pay report, that found people “want the state to spend more, but are deeply reluctant for that to come out of their own pockets — especially when they’re feeling the pinch, as they surely will be as we emerge from this shock.”

Mulheirn, however, said it was “hard to see the circle being squared without tax rises,” dubbing the coming decade “austerity redux … this time with tax rises rather than spending cuts.”

As for that other overriding goal of the British government which policymakers used to talk about, Mulheirn offered a piece of advice that his boss — the ardently pro-EU Tony Blair — would approve of.

“Given the unpalatable options on the table, the government might want to reconsider the wisdom of the very hard Brexit it was planning, since that will only sharpen the dilemma,” he said.

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UK missed out on EU ventilator scheme due to ‘communication problem’

LONDON — The British government said Thursday that it missed the deadline for taking part in an EU-wide effort to purchase life-saving ventilators and other equipment to treat coronavirus because of a “communication problem.”

The government had been accused of putting Brexit over the health of U.K. citizens by refusing to participate in EU joint procurement schemes after the prime minister’s spokesman said the U.K. was not participating because it is “no longer a member” and is “making our own efforts.”

But on Thursday, the British government said the U.K. missed the deadline to join because it did not receive an invitation from the European Commission in time. A U.K. government spokesperson said the Commission had since informed the U.K. it is eligible to take part until the end of the transition period on December 31.

Three schemes underway will see countries jointly purchase ventilators, protective gear and testing equipment — with the idea that pooling requests means the countries can buy equipment at a lower price.

“As those … initial procurement schemes had already gone out to tender we were unable to take part in these, but we will consider participating in future procurement schemes on the basis of public health requirements at the time,” the spokesperson said.

European Commission spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker said on Thursday night that the U.K. has always remained able to participate in the EU’s joint procurement efforts, but that countries need to communicate their needs to the EU before the initiative is launched.

De Keersmaecker said he “takes note” of the suggestion the U.K. did not receive the necessary communications and said the Commission would look into it.

Meanwhile the U.K. government is in conversations with manufacturers to acquire 8,000 ventilators, with the aim of doubling the number available for the U.K.’s National Health Service.

“We would say we expect thousands of those to arrive in the coming weeks, and thousands more in the pipeline to arrive in the coming months,” the prime minister’s spokesman said Thursday morning.

Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat MP standing for the leadership of the opposition party, previously said in a statement she was “deeply shocked and concerned” about the decision not to participate in the EU-wide purchasing plan.

“I would do whatever it takes to get more lifesaving equipment, and they need to take the same approach. It’s a no-brainer we can help the NHS and save lives by working together with other countries,” she said.

What Boris Johnson can learn from Pericles

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long hailed the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles as one of his idols, but their careers are now aligning more closely than he would like in the age of the coronavirus.

Both men plunged into high-stakes geopolitical showdowns against an alliance of powerful neighboring states, only to be knocked off course by the onset of a deadly disease.

More than 2,400 years ago, Athens had only just begun a war with Sparta and its allies, when plague swept through the city, killing up to a third of the population. It was one of history’s great reversals. An arrogant imperial city that saw itself as the apogee of the civilized world was immediately debilitated. Two and a half years into the war, Pericles himself died of the disease.

Just as Brexiteers promised that negotiations with the EU would be easy and that Britain would enter a new Elizabethan age after cutting free from Brussels, Pericles was tragically overconfident about his best-laid plans in the early days of the war. He was convinced Athens would have a comfortable edge over Sparta and its allies, thanks not only to its cash and triremes, but also its cultural supremacy.

A rich nobleman who played to a poor support base with legacy building schemes, Pericles was happy to dial up the patriotism. In his most famous speech, Pericles praised Athens as a uniquely superior civilization and democracy. Athenians, he said, “should fall in love” with their city on looking each day upon its “greatness.” That bubble of self-assurance was popped by the plague.

With similar self-belief, Johnson has promised a speedy victory in negotiations with the EU, an alliance that he describes as “worryingly undemocratic.” That optimism about a quick endgame against the Spartans in Brussels, however, is starting to pale in the face of the coronavirus crisis. A trade deal with Brussels by the end of the year now looks increasingly unlikely — not least because both the EU and U.K. chief negotiators have had to go into self-isolation because of the virus.

Johnson and his top adviser Dominic Cummings are both big aficionados of Thucydides, the Greek historian who is a key source for Pericles’ role in the great war between Athens and Sparta. Intriguingly, Cummings drew from Pericles’ imperialistic rhetoric when setting out ideas about Britain being a global education powerhouse. While Pericles described Athens as “the school of Greece,” Cummings argued that Britain should be “the school of the world.

Pericles and the plague

Parallels between Johnson the newspaper columnist and Pericles the frontline general should, of course, never be overdone. While Johnson is also keen on pharaonic building programs, Boris Bridge is not exactly the Parthenon. Both men have a reputation as strong orators but Pericles was famous for choosing each word extremely carefully. The historian Plutarch insists the aloof Pericles never stooped to the “buffooneries of mob-oratory.” He also almost never attended social functions.

“Pericles was not actually altogether liked because he was thought to be a little bit above what ordinary people thought,” explained Paul Cartledge, an emeritus professor of Greek history at the University of Cambridge.

While debate is still swirling about Britain’s approach to the coronavirus, there is little doubt that Pericles’ tactics in the war with Sparta inflamed the plague in Athens.

Convinced of Athens’ naval superiority, Pericles ordered Athenians to retreat within the city walls rather than risk pitched battle on land. He thought Athens could fight the Spartans by launching seaborne attacks while shipping supplies into the city.

But his strategy resulted in thousands of people moving from the countryside into an already highly-populated city. Under siege, crowded and short of resources, Athens succumbed to the plague.

Helpless physicians, ignorant of the nature of the outbreak, died the fastest, according to Thucydides. The disease had a range of symptoms including intense fever, inflammation of the eyes, breathing problems, convulsions, violent coughs and vomiting. Many Athenians though the plague was an act of the god Apollo, who had taken the Spartans’ side. (Pericles is largely viewed as more of a skeptic about divine causation.)

“Thucydides is very keen on Pericles having been terrifically foresighted in general: He foresaw that the Spartans would behave in the way that they did, and he built up Athens’ reserves,” said Cartledge. “But the plague completely threw out any calculation that anybody could have made. It put such pressure on the urban space for those two months [of the siege] that it knocked out a lot of Pericles’ plans.”

Like the British, the ancient Athenians were hard to corral. Some Athenians objected to being quarantined and continued to visit friends and relatives. Facing imminent death, some went in search of life’s pleasures. And as people looked after each other in close contact, “they died like sheep,” said Thucydides. Corpses lay everywhere and the city-state struggled to cope.

No turning back

As the Athenians started to feel the impact of both the outbreak and constant attacks by their enemies, they panicked and accused Pericles of persuading them to go to war. As a gifted public speaker, Pericles managed to calm the Athenians’ anger and refocus their energy on the war. Left with no choice but to resist, the Athenians reelected Pericles as general, after initially sacking him and fining him.

The Plague in an Ancient City by Flemish painter Michiel Sweerts (XVII Century, CE) | Public domain

If Johnson is looking for a model of the oratory needed to encourage national unity amid disobedience of curfews and social distancing, he should indeed be harking back to Pericles. “You have been so dismayed by disaster in your homes that you are losing your grip on the common safety,” he proclaimed. “However well off a man may be in his private life, he will still be involved in the general ruin if his country is destroyed.”

Pericles would, however, have advised Boris to stick to his guns on Brexit. Shattered by plague, Athenians began to query the wisdom of their empire-building adventurism that sparked the war, but Pericles warned there was no way back from empire: “To take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is dangerous.”

Pericles became famous for using public money to gain the support of the common people, funding festivals and banquets. He also made sure he was seen to be leading the crisis, while carefully choosing when he appeared in public.

This is also an important Periclean lesson for Johnson, Cartledge said, following criticism that the prime minister disappeared for 12 days when floods hit the north of England last month.

Boris Johnson has long hailed the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles as one of his idols | Pool photo by Ian Vogler/AFP via Getty Images

“One of the functions of a leader in any democracy is precisely to be seen to be leading, taking responsibility, taking things forward. I would say it is even more important for Johnson because there is only one prime minister, whereas in Athens there were 10 generals and Pericles was just one of them. But Johnson is out there and he ought to have learnt from his hero that you’ve got to stand up and be counted and then show your face,” he said.

The plague ultimately claimed Pericles’ life when he was in his sixties. His wife and two of his sons also died.

In a speech shortly before the outbreak of war, he had given advice on how to continue the war — including a crucial tip not to try to expand the empire while still fighting the Spartans. But that was forgotten. The Athenians made a disastrous attempt to conquer Sicily and the war dragged on almost 30 years.

Of course, sorting out Britain’s relationship with the EU could never take that long.

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UK chief Brexit negotiator self-isolates after showing COVID-19 symptoms

LONDON — The U.K.’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost is self-isolating after showing “mild symptoms” of COVID-19, government officials confirmed.

Frost, who leads the U.K. team in post-Brexit trade talks with the EU, has not had contact with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier — who said he had “tested postive for COVID-19” on Thursday — since the first round of trade talks in Brussels two weeks ago.

Bloomberg reported late on Thursday that Frost is self-isolating. On Friday morning a U.K. official confirmed to POLITICO that this was the case. “He is self-isolating as he has some mild symptoms,” the official said.

Brexit negotiations are currently on hold because of the coronavirus outbreak. The second round was meant to begin Wednesday in London. There have been discussions between the two sides about recommencing the talks via videoconferencing, but no new schedule has yet been established.

The news that both sides’ chief negotiators are now self-isolating is likely to delay progress even further.

Boris Johnson faces up to his history moment

LONDON — Boris Johnson has got his “Churchill moment” — but it’s not the one he meant it to be.

Saturday marks 100 days since an election victory that should have seen Johnson remembered — first and foremost — as the man who “got Brexit done.” But the British prime minister now finds himself facing a global crisis which makes the U.K.’s exit from the European Union look trivial by comparison — and his response could either secure his long-craved legacy or expose him as poorly suited for leadership when it really mattered.

In the new age of coronavirus, the other preoccupations of those first 100 days — preparing for post-Brexit trade deals; going to war with the press and the civil service; laying plans for an expensive infrastructure “revolution” — seem like the concerns of a different political epoch.

Less than two months since confirming its first cases of coronavirus (coincidentally on January 31, Brexit day) the U.K. has asked most of its population not to go out to socialize, work or go to school, put £350 billion aside in an attempt to prop up the economy, and the National Health Service is facing its biggest challenge in its 75-year history.

Johnson’s handling of the crisis is already controversial. Apparent reluctance to impose more draconian lockdown measures have already made the U.K. an outlier — many countries were quicker to force the closure of schools and public meeting places, for example — and attracted criticism from public health experts.

“He knows words have impact, as do all the other world leaders. They’re using words wisely and effectively for the greater good — and Johnson isn’t” — Biographer Sonia Purnell

Message discipline has also been a problem, with briefings to journalists often needing clarification (after the headlines are written) in now-daily official press conferences.

Johnson’s biographer and former Telegraph colleague, Sonia Purnell, said too often the prime minister comes across as “glib.”

“He knows words have impact, as do all the other world leaders. They’re using words wisely and effectively for the greater good — and Johnson isn’t,” she said.

Johnson, himself a biographer of Winston Churchill, will know that his own place in the history books now has little to do with what happened in the past 100 days and everything to do with how he leads the country through a new and dark hour.

Boris Johnson: history boy

In summer 2019, with the Conservative leadership contest only going one way, Whitehall officials pondered what kind of prime minister Johnson would turn out to be. “Work backward from what he might want written in the history books and you’ll be getting close to what might happen,” one senior official said at the time.

As mayor of London, Johnson had a tendency to pursue “white elephant” projects | Chris Young/AFP via Getty Images

A Brexiteer MP outside Westminster’s Red Lion pub, a few days later, made a similar observation. “Boris Johnson wants to be a prime minister of historic importance. He knows what he has to do to achieve that.”

Even before he ran for prime minister, it was widely observed that Johnson was interested in “legacy.” The most visible manifestation was a string of grand plans — some would say white elephants — that he conceived of in his days as mayor of London, some of which came to fruition, others which did not (but still cost millions of pounds).

“He’s incredibly keen on [securing a legacy],” said Purnell. “A lot of politicians are, but him in particular. That’s what Boris Island airport was all about, the Garden Bridge, the Thames Cable Car, now the Northern Ireland bridge. He’s desperate to leave some kind of legacy so people in a hundred years’ time will say: ‘That was built by that guy Boris.’”

Johnson’s interest in how future generations will regard him is informed by his own regard for generations past. He is, according to Anthony Seldon, the biographer of the past six British prime ministers, “in love with history, enchanted by it … Not for 50 years has Britain had a prime minister who is so intrigued and affected by history.”

In one of his first appointments, Johnson brought in John Bew, a history professor, as his chief foreign policy adviser inside No. 10. Bew has now been put in charge of a far-reaching Whitehall review of foreign, defense and international aid policy. “The prime minister rates him and the role that historians have to play,” said one senior official.

Inside No. 10, the history bug has only have bitten deeper.

Well known for his university study of classics, Johnson’s love for the “romance” of British history, as Seldon puts it, also runs deep — most clearly manifested in his 2014 Churchill biography: ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.’’

Panned by some historians for occasional inaccuracies, and by some critics for its obvious attempts to draw comparisons between author and subject, the book nevertheless grants an insight into Johnson’s attitude to history, politics and legacy. “To some extent all politicians are gamblers with events,” he writes. “They try to anticipate what will happen, to put themselves ‘on the right side of history,’ to show off their judgment to best advantage.”

In Churchill’s case it was anti-Nazism before it was fashionable. For Johnson, Brexit before it was inevitable.

Purnell reads the book as a naked attempt at self-promotion. “What he was trying to do was to plant in our brains — and he’s done it fantastically successfully by the way — the idea that he is some kind of Churchill figure coming to rescue his country in its hour of need. He’s used history to plant this idea that he should be seen in this way,” she said.

At the election later that year, the imagined image of a new Churchill standing up to Europe was “wonderfully timed” for a moment when Britain seemed to be “standing alone,” Seldon said.

First 100 days

Inside No. 10, the history bug has only have bitten deeper.

“To some extent it comes with the job,” said another politician-historian, David Lidington, who served as deputy to Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May. “It’s almost impossible for somebody to walk up that staircase of No. 10, with all the portraits of previous prime ministers, and not be conscious of the fact that you are the latest trustee of this office and that many others have come before you.” (Lidington, Purnell and Seldon initially spoke to POLITICO in mid-February before the coronavirus outbreak escalated in Europe.)

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Johnson’s legacy as prime minister seemed to hinge on getting Brexit done | Leon Neal/Getty Images

In Seldon’s view, Johnson’s regard for history (and how it will regard him) will “affect everything he does.” The decisions of the first 100 days since the election — and how they were communicated — reflected that.

The goal in the first 50 days was “getting Brexit done.”

With a deal secured prior to the election and a commanding majority, Johnson could swiftly break the parliamentary logjam and on Friday January 31 — day 50 — he recorded an “address to the nation” from a dimly lit room in No. 10.

“This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama,” he said. Hope would be renewed, the NHS revived, the country would see the biggest infrastructure revolution “since the Victorians.”

That same day, two Chinese nationals who had fallen ill at the StayCity hotel in York tested positive for coronavirus: the first cases in the U.K.

The following Monday — day 53 — he gave a speech in James Thornhill’s Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich — known as Britain’s Sistine Chapel — setting out the U.K.’s plan for a distant, Canada-style trade deal with the EU, with the emphasis placed on the country’s legal freedom from European courts, not economic closeness to the EU.

He invoked the spirit of the past to lend meaning (or at least, his preferred meaning) to the present. “This is the newly forged United Kingdom on the slipway, this is the moment when it all took off,” he said, gazing at the ceiling which depicts the early 18th century moment that the U.K. emerged as a dominant global trading power. Little more than a month later, the Painted Hall would close its doors to visitors “in response to the COVID-19 situation.”

“It contributes to a sense of self-belief and optimism for the future” — Former minister explaining Johnson use of British nostalgia

On day 61, Johnson was at it again.

“Two centuries ago, our ancestors could have been content with breeding faster horses,” he told the House of Commons, as he confirmed plans to complete the “HS2” high-speed railway project — at a total cost that could rise to £106 billion. “They looked to the future of transport and they made it happen and today it is our duty to do the same,” Johnson said. The project, which Johnson had previously expressed doubts about, now belonged within his mission to “level-up” opportunities across the country, specifically pumping more resources into the north of England. This strategy, besides Brexit, was the guiding star for the prime minister prior to the coronavirus crisis.

The “New Victorian” pose caught on. In the same week that he confirmed plans for HS2, the Mail on Sunday newspaper reported that he had commissioned a study into the feasibility of a bridge or tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland. The paper’s picture editors illustrated the story with a mocked-up photo of Johnson as the great 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The frequent invocations of a glorious British past served a purpose.

“It contributes to a sense of self-belief and optimism for the future,” observed one former minister at the height of Johnson’s post-election pomp. The U.K., embarking on an uncertain new path with Brexit, might take comfort and confidence from looking back to past glories.

In this, Johnson is in a long and not always noble tradition of leaders who cast themselves as the inheritors of glorious forebears. “You could even say there is a bit of the Mussolini to Johnson,” the former minister added.

A near-empty Tube car runs in London on March 19, 2020, as London’s transport system and commuters respond to the coronavirus | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The way Johnson and his team ran government internally also seemed to owe just a little to il Duce.

Entering office like a revolutionary government, the first 100 days were marked by battles with the senior levels of the civil service, regarded by Conservative Brexiteers as inefficient, obstructive to change and institutionally anti-Brexit. Tensions boiled over at the Home Office, which had been tasked by Home Secretary Priti Patel with introducing a radically changed post-Brexit immigration system.

Philip Rutnam, the department’s most senior official, resigned — day 79 — saying there had been a “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him. Johnson backed Patel without caveats.

There were also clashes with the press, culminating in Westminster correspondents walking out of No. 10 Downing Street — day 53 — when only select outlets were invited to a briefing with the government’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost.

“He’s got a dark pugilistic side which sees enemies everywhere,” Seldon said, speaking to POLITICO again earlier this week. “Among the civil service, among Remainers, among his own party, among the EU … [a side] very much honed by [chief strategist] Dominic Cummings: a them and us world. It’s a divisive vision and that carried him into Downing Street.”

But as February progressed, the U.K.’s coronavirus caseload ticked upward. In Italy, the first COVID-19 death was reported. The world was about to change and Johnson would have to change with it.

World crisis 

On Tuesday March 3 2020 — day 82 — Johnson gave the first of what are now-daily press conferences from Downing Street flanked by leading officials, aimed at communicating directly with the country about the crisis.

The other preoccupations of the first 100 days — the great “national renewal” that Johnson planned — threaten to be overwhelmed.

In Seldon’s view, the role of unifying figurehead in a crisis is one that could suit Johnson’s character better than that of leader of the winning side in the Brexit culture war.

“Having identified a common enemy suddenly, overnight, experts and civil servants and officials … are not dark, they’re on our side. And he’s more comfortable, in fact, in that role of being a conciliator rather than a divider. He no longer sees enemies within because there’s an enemy without. And he’s more energized by it,” he said.

Downing Street even initiated a rapprochement with Westminster correspondents, with director of communications Lee Cain calling for a truce during “unprecedented times … The slate is wiped clean,” he said at a daily briefing for journalists on Monday — day 95.

The other preoccupations of the first 100 days — the great “national renewal” that Johnson planned — threaten to be overwhelmed.

The effective shutdown of major parts of the U.K. economy and the collapse of the pound to its lowest levels in more than 30 years mean that the budget set out by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak just last week — on day 90 — is hardly worth the paper it is written on. A huge £350 billion has already been set aside for loans and grants to stop businesses collapsing. Forget a Victorian-style infrastructure renaissance, the first priority is now economic survival.

And Brexit? It is “not a subject that’s being regularly discussed in Downing Street at the moment,” Johnson said wryly at Wednesday’s press conference (day 97). Trade talks have been suspended and while Johnson still insists the U.K. will exit the standstill transition period on December 31, breaking away once and for all from the single market, many wonder whether that position will survive the coming months, or even weeks.

And yet, in that first press conference on March 3, Johnson’s demeanor did not suggest a man who recognized how grave the situation would soon become. The jolly takeaway line was an appeal to the British to wash their hands for as long as it took to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Useful yes, but far from the radical shutdowns that were being ordered in other countries within days.Asked whether shaking hands was still safe, Johnson, with characteristic bluster, said he had been to a hospital that had been treating COVID-19 patients and “shook hands with everybody.”

Since then, as the number of cases in the U.K. climbed, and Europe and much of the world shut its borders, a new Johnson has been emerging, press conference by press conference, the expression on his face darkening. On Thursday, March 12 — day 91 — a somber prime minister looked down the camera lens and told the country in no uncertain terms that many more of their loved ones would die, in “the worst public health crisis in a generation.”

Announcing the first major restrictions on British people’s movements, he took on the role of chairman, allowing Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance to lead with expertise.

Yet Johnson is this week reported to have joked on a call with business leaders that the enterprise to encouraging manufacturing companies to build more life-saving ventilators could be known as “Operation Last Gasp,” an account that Downing Street did not deny.

At such a time, leadership is not just about decision-making, but finding the words to rally a fearful country. It will be the greatest challenge, by far, of Johnson’s career. As the situation inevitably worsens, as the death toll mounts, much will depend on whether he can, as Seldon puts it, be a uniter and not a divider.

“He has been serious and he has tried to bring the country together, he’s set aside partisanship” — David Lidington, a former Theresa May deputy

May’s former deputy Lidington (not a natural Johnson ally) thinks his old Cabinet colleague has done well so far.

“He has been serious and he has tried to bring the country together, he’s set aside partisanship. He has used and deployed the experts,” Lidington said, speaking to POLITICO again earlier this week. “He thought he was going to be the prime minister defined by Brexit and ‘leveling up’. And all of a sudden he is confronted by something completely unexpected.”

Johnson, the student of Churchill, “will be acutely aware that a crisis not only places great demands on leaders,” Lidington concluded. “But that leaders have often been defined by how they are seen to respond to a crisis.”

Seldon agrees. “Churchill was himself a very divisive figure and had to wait for that moment with destiny,” he observed. “This is Boris’ moment with destiny.”

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UK immigration refuses EU citizen applications to settle in Britain

LONDON — The British government has begun declining applications from European Union citizens to its EU settlement scheme, with 300 applications rejected in February.

The Home Office said today that the refusals related to cases that had been under consideration for several months and applicants had failed to provide the government with sufficient evidence or information.

The scheme allows citizens from European Economic Area countries and Switzerland to prove they have the right to continue to live, work and access public services in the U.K. after the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

Nazek Ramadan, director of the campaign group Migrant Voice, said the fact that some applications were being declined was a “worrying and unexpected development.”

The Home Office should not refuse applications on information-related grounds, she said, because there are “countless valid explanations” for an individual failing to provide evidence. These include fearing interactions with immigration services, learning disabilities or health problems, she said.

“The Home Office must urgently provide more information about these cases and their decision to refuse,” she said, including how long the applications were in the system and how many times caseworkers tried to contact the applicants.

By the end of February, the Home Office had received more than 3.3 million applications to the scheme, with 235,800 in the month of February alone. The department processed 2.9 million applications and granted settled status to 58 percent and pre-settled status to 41 per cent.

A total 19,100 received a withdrawn or void outcome, and 6,800 were deemed invalid, meaning some of them would have to reapply.

Michel Barnier has coronavirus

LONDON — EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has “tested positive for COVID-19.”

The top Brussels official said on Twitter today (in English as well as French) he is doing well and “in good spirits.” He added: “I am following all the necessary instructions, as is my team.”

“For all those affected already, and for all those currently in isolation, we will get through this together.”

Brexit talks between the U.K. and the EU were due to take place in London this week but officials were unable to travel due to fears about the coronavirus. A plan to hold discussions through videoconference never materialized.

Many experts say an extension to the Brexit transition period is is now inevitable due to the disruption the virus will bring and the limited bandwidth of governments to cope. However the U.K. government insists it will stick to the planned timeline.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday the issue has “been legislated for,” referring to the law passed by parliament in January that bans the government from requesting an extension.

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