Richard North, 01/03/2020  

I would not begin to suggest that the Philip Rutnam saga is unimportant. But it is precisely this sort of biff-bam personality politics that the legacy media loves. It will thus create another distraction, drawing attention away from Brexit.

That Downing Street should then respond by releasing the "news" – already known for over a week that Johnson's paramour is pregnant and the couple are to marry - has not escaped without cynical comment. It is the optimal distraction to distract from the distraction, providing still more clutter in an already overcrowded news agenda.

Even in the Guardian, though, where the news is only given grudging space, the report still qualifies as the "most viewed", suggesting that media "consumers" are quite willing to be distracted. The Mail on Sunday certainly takes that view, presenting readers with a picture of the "happy couple" on its front page, and offering "the exclusive inside story of their love".

We must be in a situation, therefore, where – since the UK mandate was published on Thursday and our negotiators prepare for talks in Brussels tomorrow – one of the most important policy issues of the century is also one of the least scrutinised in the national media.

Yet, even when we see a journalist attempt a critique, as does the Observer's economics editor, it is not much improvement on nothing at all.

This is Phillip Inman who offers an evaluation of a Canada-style agreement, suggesting that it is "one that gives easy entry to EU markets without strings attached". Hence we have just about as many errors in one sentence as it is possible to cram into so short a length. It neither gives easy entry and nor is it without strings.

Nevertheless, Inman is able to conclude that it is a proposal "that cannot fly in Brussels" which means that the UK "ends up with no deal" – even if he doesn't discuss the idea of a "bare bones" deal as such, even though that is definitely a possibility.

Oddly, the man does explore the idea of side-deals to tackle specific issues such as fishing, referring to the Swiss option where the EU signed more than 100 separate trade deals with Switzerland. But he regards it as a "poor analogy", not least because it comes with a demand for free movement of people.

Had the Swiss stayed with the Efta/EEA option, of course, they would have invoked Article 112 of the EEA Agreement and crafted a partial opt-out to freedom of movement, alongside Liechtenstein. The opening moves had already been lodged before the Swiss referendum which dropped the country out of the Agreement.

Effectively, though, if the UK doesn't settle for a comprehensive trade deal by the end of the transition period – and it hardly seems possible that it can – then it would have little option but to continue talking, settling such matters as civil aviation access, and many more issues that will be essential if there are to be anything like normal relations with our neighbours.

On that basis, although Inman is willing to countenance the possibility of a no-deal resolution, he doesn't seem to understand that this is not a viable prospect. There are no circumstances where the UK, as a mature, developed nation with a highly complex and sophisticated economy can withdraw into isolation, cutting itself off from the rest of Europe.

And even if the Johnson administration was mad enough to attempt this, it is only a matter of time before it would be replaced and another, more sympathetic administration would seek to re-establish ties.

Yet Inman is not the only one this weekend to entertain the idea of a no-deal. In the Tory Boy online magazine, former remain MP, and justice secretary, David Gauke, makes the case for Johnson actively seeking out this outcome.

He takes as his base line the view that the political price to be paid for getting a deal might not be worth it for a Tory government, in which event he speculates as to the action it might take.

The first thing it would do is seek to ensure that the EU got the blame with the British public for the failure of any talks. It would then reassure the public that no deal will be alright. This might be achieved by rebranding "no deal", "perhaps with reference to a prosperous and familiar country that we like". Australia will do, he suggests.

For stage three, Gauke advances that the government would "provoke the EU to be intransigent". The best way to do that, he says, is to undermine the EU's trust in our good intentions, not least by ditching the Irish Protocol.

As a strategy, he concludes, critics would be justified in describing it as "reckless, evasive of responsibility, cynical and dishonest". But, he asserts, on the evidence of the last few years, it would probably work. He thus fears that the Government must be tempted to follow down this path.

Pete certainly feels that the Tory Party could take this course of action although, he argues, by that time it will be on the wrong side of its honeymoon period.

The conflict between the civil service and Patel, he suggests, won't be the last high profile flashpoint, and it won't be long before the government is mired in scandals. The media is sitting on a goldmine of dirt to dish out when the time is right. If Labour can climb out of its hole and start opposing then Johnson could be looking at a serious hammering come the next election.

That is always a possibility and if Starmer gets the Labour leadership, he probably has enough nounce to be able to fake a superficially credible position on "Europe" that might prove less of an electoral handicap than was the stance taken by his predecessor. With a Johnson no-deal policy in tatters, he could pull the UK back from the brink.

However, while Brexit has dominated the political agenda for nearly four years, it will not necessarily continue to do so. With the emergence of the novel coronavirus, ministers are having to confront the prospect of 80 percent of the population becoming infected, with the estimate of mortality as high as 500,000.

This is redolent of the panicky reports at the height of the BSE scare, when the Observer had it that we would be filling the Channel Tunnel with concrete to cut us off from the rest of Europe (still a possibility, one might think) while the chief medical officer was also offering a figure of 500,000 deaths – seemingly the favoured figure for doomsday predictions.

And yet, even if the number of deaths is pure speculation (we don't even have any reliable figures for the death to case ratio - much less the herd immunity threshold, at which point the epidemic automatically subsides), the fear is real and by no means irrational.

This epidemic is almost certain to spread and, while we cannot yet estimate the number of people who might die, there can be no doubt that we will see a significant number of fatalities.

Most of what the authorities do in their attempts to contain the epidemic is largely useless, so it is a matter of going through rituals to boost public morale and to maintain confidence in the apparatus of government. These is my so-called purple banana strategy, where government must be seen to be doing something, rather than succumb in the face of overwhelming powerlessness.

Already, Johnson has made an error in not calling a Cobra committee last Friday, suggesting he doesn't really have a handle on what makes people tick. A seemingly uncontrolled rise in Covid-19 and a few inept moves by Johnson could fatally wound his government and threaten its tenure.

On the other hand, given that we are looking down the nose of a global recession, this may well obscure the effects of a botched Brexit. Johnson will be able to use the epidemic as an alibi for the nation's poor economic performance.

But, rather than his administration being measured by its results on Brexit, this may be overtaken by public confidence in Johnson's management of the epidemic. In the year or so that it will take to produce and distribute an effective vaccine, that will depend on his ability to deliver credible "purple bananas" (straight or otherwise) which will ward off panic and keep disorder at bay.

So far, other than Corbyn, I cannot think of anyone less likely to inspire confidence in the management of this epidemic than Johnson, so it could be a microscopic organism rather than Brexit that does for him at the next election.

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