An early draft of history from March 27 2024
In one sense, Boris Johnson didn’t deserve his fate. Unlike his four predecessors, he had no time to make long-term preparations for a pandemic. In another, he arguably did, given the slowness of his Government’s short-term response on testing and equipment.
But as the dust begins to clear from this epidemiological earthquake, what evidence we have suggests that Johnson’s response was little more successful or unsuccessful than anyone else’s. And there has been a deadly equality in the grim fate of governments worldwide.
The facts in the UK are well-known. A six figure death rate. An NHS that collapsed beneath the weight of emergency admissions and staff shortages. Food supply chains that broke, with the Government forced to introduce rationing.
Mass breakouts from the lockdown in the form of riots and looting. Unburied dead and litter mountains, for which the fabled “winter of discontent” looks like a dress rehearsal. The army on the streets – until it too was devastated by the virus. And then the second wave, just as the curfew was lifted. (A vaccine only became available in 2022.)
In a nutshell, the social deal that the Government sought to strike failed doubly. The young and fit sacrificed their jobs and incomes to try and save the old and vulnerable. But the fact is that the young lost their jobs and the old lost their lives – both at once.
The recession was L-shaped with a long tail that trails on still. The deficit dwarfed even bad case forecasts of nine per cent, and is set to hit 13 per cent or so, roughly double the peak of that hit during the financial crisis. The sole consolation is that the Government can still borrow at rock-bottom rates amidst this new great depression.
Mass unemployment is back – a new experience for younger people, like the temporary bursts of inflation. Skills have atrophied; business had nosedived. When growth resumes, prepare for a mass programme of spending cuts, amidst claims that a generation of NHS heroes is now being betrayed, and tax rises.
Schools and colleges effectively closed for two years, and are hard to reassemble. A “lost generation” of young people have struggled with home education and now with joblessness. There are unimaginable demands on the police, health service workers, the army and other public service workers, with only printed money to pay them.
Against this Goya-like background, the fate of Johnson’s Government is but a footnote in history. The social media and public pressure pile-on panicked the mass of relatively inexperienced Conservative MPs. The Prime Minister was stalked and ultimately slain by that familiar threat to Tory leaders: the no-confidence vote.
As I write, Rishi Sunak still leads the National Government. Some point to the injustice of events: after all, he was no less implicated by them than Johnson. But that’s politics, isn’t it? Keir Starmer is Deputy Prime Minister. Ed Davey, Communities Secretary.
Richard Burgon leads the breakaway Left opposition of some 50 MPs, who denounce Starmer as a latter-day Ramsay MacDonald. By contrast, the Conservatives have remained, as during the 1930s, a relatively united force. Oh, and Brexit itself looks like an early draft of history amidst the collapse of the Euro.
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An early draft of history from March 27 2024
It still isn’t clear – for so contested is the data and what it means – what happened in Britain. Was the Government’s strategy, as Boris Johnson and Ministers ceaselessly proclaim, a brilliantly-timed triumph? Or, as is more likely, did he and his Government get lucky?
The most plausible explanation is that the Coronavirus was far more widespread than the authorities believed, that death rates were consequently lower, and that death numbers, while containing a mass of family tragedies, little higher than the 28,330 deaths from flu recorded in 2014-2015.
They bottomed out at 35,000 or so. While the NHS fell over in places, it mostly stood firm, and was back on its feet quickly. The scenes, numbers and apparent rates in many other countries, for example the United States, were much worse, and voters seem to have concluded that Johnson and company coped reasonably well.
In a nutshell, the Government sought to seal a social deal whereby the young and fit sacrified jobs and incomes to save the old and vulnerable. It worked. The lives of some of the latter were saved, the economy rebounded, growth resumed, the recession was V-shaped.
More firms survived than would otherwise have been the case, the self-employed were mostly able to pick up where they left off, skills and knowledge did not atrophy. Children went back to school and students to their colleges. Rishi Sunak was able to unwind his massive economic interventions swiftly.
The deficit rose from its pre-virus levels of 1.9 per cent of GDP, but to nothing like the bad case forecast of nine per cent. The Government has been forced to make some unpalatable spending cuts and tax rises, but has just about kept its levelling-up aspirations and Boosterism ambitions on track.
The Coronavirus left its mark. The railways have effectively been renationalised, and use has fallen, like traffic queues, as home working has stuck. GP surgeries have undergone a remote service revolution. Classwork at home has risen. The 700,000 NHS volunteer army has been deployed, not demobilised. The Big Society lives.
Johnson’s fingers were rapped by a public enquiry over the shortage of ventilators and the lack of testing – but so were those of the four previous Prime Ministers: Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. No-one resigned. The early arrival of a vaccine stemmed a second Coronavirus wave.
The Prime Minister was able to slam a lid on Conservative backbench protests and keep his internal opponents out of Cabinet. The crisis drove Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader off the top of the news bulletins and front pages, and he has never achieved lift-off with voters.
As I write, Johnson looks set for a comfortable election win next year. Alex Salmond’s revived leadership of the SNP has triggered a Tory revival in Scotland. The Brexit settlement was delayed by a year but a Canada-type deal is now in place. And Jeremy Corbyn, 74, is preparing for a second run for Labour’s leadership.