Richard North, 03/03/2020  
 


Some might consider me a little biased when it comes to assessing the performance of our Great Leader, but just to watch this man blathering makes you wonder how on earth this bumbling fool ever got as far as he has done.

Speaking in the aftermath of his first COBRA committee meeting on coronavirus, where every single national newspaper is carrying Covid-19 news on their front pages, he tells us that he thinks the "problem" is likely to become "more significant" for this country in the course of the next days and weeks.

He probably got advice on that, to play down the impact of the disease, but on the other hand to talk up the government's response. Thus, the lies dribble out of him with the easy familiarity of one practised in the dark art, as he claims that "we've been making every possible preparation" for the "problem". This country, he lies, "is very, very well prepared".

And here's a thing about the man. Everything in his book is "fantastic". Yesterday, the home secretary was "fantastic". Now "we've got a fantastic NHS" and, furthermore, the testing systems are "fantastic". But just to ring the changes, the "surveillance of the spread of disease" is "amazing".

But, says the Great Leader, "we've also agreed a plan so that, as and when if and when it starts to spread … we are in a position to take the steps that will be necessary … to contain the spread of the disease, and as far as we can also to protect the most vulnerable".

Unable to resist passing on perhaps the only bit of information he has understood from his own briefing, he then told the nation that "the single most useful thing we can all do to support our NHS to stop the spread of coronavirus is to wash our hands, two times "happy birthday", hot water and soap".

This is the man who likes to cast himself in the mould of a latter-day Churchill, but while our wartime leader had nothing to offer but "blood, toil, tears and sweat", Johnson can at least give us washing our hands to the tune of "happy birthday" (twice) as a recipe for victory. I suppose that's progress.

Other than that though, our pound-shop leader wishes to stress that, "at the moment, its very important that people consider that they should as far as possible go about business as usual".

When Churchill delivered his speech on 13 May 1940, to a crowded House of Commons, in his peroration he declared that he felt "entitled to claim the aid of all", closing with the words: "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength".

Somehow, "Come then, let us go forward together and wash our hands to the tune of 'happy birthday' (twice)" doesn't have quite the same resonance, but it makes for an apt comparison between the two men, then and now.

While Lees-Smith, then de facto leader of the Labour Party, was able to respond to Churchill's "striking, stirring and noble words", the immediate response from "an overwhelming majority of doctors" was that the NHS was "not well prepared to deal with a major outbreak of coronavirus".

This came from more than 99 percent of 1,618 NHS medics questioned, who most emphatically disagreed with the assurances given by Johnson that the service would cope if it is hit by a surge in the number of people falling ill. Doctors were worried that the NHS is already stretched and under heavy pressure, and especially that it has too few intensive care beds and that GP surgeries were already struggling to meet patient demand.

But then, this hardly comes as a surprise. Virtually everything that comes out of Johnson's mouth is either a lie, a distortion or an exaggeration, no more so than his rhetoric about clinching a trade deal with the United States.

With the official sales document published today, though, we find that best case scenario for a full-frontal trade deal is to add a mere 0.16 percent to our national GDP, a cash value of £3.4 billion. This adds 0.13 percent to our total imports from the US and actually increases the trade gap in favour of the United States.

Roughly speaking, this much-vaunted deal will only deliver one-thirtieth of the potential losses we suffer from ditching our trade relationship with the EU – and that's what we get from the world's largest economy. The chances of us making up the balance of our losses from other trade deals thus does seem rather remote.

Interestingly, on this, Johnson doesn't even seem to have the support of the nation. When asked by YouGov who we would rather have as a closer trading partner, 51 percent favoured the EU while the United States attracted a mere 17 percent.

US trade representative Robert Lighthizer, was also dismissive of certain aspects of the trade deal, not least the estimates of low economic growth in the UK negotiation paper. In his view, "You can be fairly certain that whatever numbers people come up with they are not going to be accurate".

That, I think it is fairly safe to assert, is a given. But when we see in the Financial Times that front page headline that coronavirus "threatens to cut global growth in half", one wonders whether the UK estimates have been far too optimistic.

Certainly, this is not the time to be playing games, or "blood, toil, tears and sweat" will be all that we get. Whether it is to the tune of "happy birthday" will, one trusts, be optional.

But that was certainly the direction of travel as our negotiators met their counterparts in Brussels yesterday, leaving EU officials warily to wargame their response if the UK delegation walks away from the talks in June.

The UK intention, we are told, will be to pressurise Brussels into making a last-ditch offer in September which, when accepted, can be hailed as a "great victory over the "evil empire".

However, those diligent anonymous sources have been hard at work, telling the fanboy gazette that the strategy could backfire, leading to the markets "losing it", with the UK and EU ending up trading on WTO terms. The crunch could even come before June if neither side is willing to pull back from their red lines in the first negotiating rounds.

Nevertheless, the threat to storm out of the negotiations was described as "domestic theatrics" by EU diplomats, who were pessimistic about the chances of any serious progress in the first round of trade talks. And it may be theatre, but it is also playing with fire.

For some considerable time now, the mood music has been suggesting that the global economy is on the brink of another financial crisis and, even if key indicators are lagging, technically we are already in a global recession. By June, as Covid-19 cases accumulate, the position can only be worse. By the end of the year, we could be in uncharted territory.

I am not sure this is registering with the trade negotiators, who seem to be somewhat tardy in joining up the dots. It must surely be the case, though, that the working assumptions on which negotiating positions were originally drafted must have changed – some, perhaps, irrevocably.

Coronavirus, though, could just be the trigger for a financial crisis that was going to happen anyway, intensifying its depth and duration. Quite probably, when we emerge from whatever is about to hit us, the world will have changed in ways that we can't predict. Adding further uncertainty to an already uncertain situation, therefore, does not seem to be an intelligent strategy.

But then, when the political apparatus of this nation is led by a buffoon who thinks that the appropriate response to a major public health crisis is for him to tell us that our personal hygiene routines should be conducted to the tune of "happy birthday" (twice), our bigger problem might be the collapse of sentience at the heart of government.

For that, I have nothing to offer but soap, hand washing, tunes and fear.






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