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Does Johnson actually believe his own deluded rhetoric?

If he does, then we should all be worried.

Boris Johnson has blustered his way through the Conservative Party conference, dismissing concerns about the broken fuel supply chain, chronic job shortages in a range of key sectors and the spectre of inflation as he trumpets some hastily concocted nonsense about it all being part of a grand plan to end “decades of drift and dither”.

Does he really expect people to believe such nonsense? Where was this grand plan to reset our economy during the Brexit referendum? So much of what is happening now looks more like the Project Fear Johnson, Gove and Farage were so fond of characterising the pro-EU lobby’s warnings as in 2016.

Perhaps it was part of the “oven ready Brexit” that swept him into office? Except he forgot to tell anyone.

His attempt to take ownership of the crises that seem to be ripping through our economy from every direction by claiming it is part of some long envisaged plan and that this is just a transitional phase is simply delusional nonsense. There is no plan. According to Johnson this transitional phase is proving so challenging because every business in the country wasn’t ready for it. Maybe that is because, before this week, the strategy did not exist.

“Drift and dither” is an apt description of Johnson’s time in office. There is no leadership. There is no sense of being in control of events. There is no competence at any level of this government.

The Tories in Manchester will lap it up. We have to hope that the rest of the country sees through this latest rhetorical smokescreen and realise that unless Johnson is consigned to the history books soon the damage this government is doing will take decades to repair.

Is it Au revoir Rendez-Vous?

For over 60 years, this weekend would have seen the global reinsurance community packing its bags ready to descend on Monte Carlo, that playground of wealthy tax exiles on the French Riviera. This year, as last year, those bags will remain unpacked as the annual Rendez-Vous de Septembre has been cancelled in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The question now being asked in hushed tones around the London Market is: Will it ever return?

For two years the reinsurance market has happily managed its annual renewal season without the need for 3000 expense account fuelled brokers, reinsurers, insurers, consultants and journalists to descend on the Principality of Monaco for its second largest annual event after the Formula 1 Grand Prix. 

The Rendez-Vous has survived several major transitions in the way the market operates since its first event in 1957. As the real work of the renewal season edged closer to the end of the year, fewer and fewer deals were struck in the cafés and bars around the Place du Casino in mid-September but the value of face-to-face conversations in setting the mood for the season remained strong. It also gave new entrants the opportunity to start building relationships with key players and for awkward conversations about rates and terms to be initiated in a convivial environment.

For two years all of that has been done in the new virtual world we inhabit, one that only existed in science fiction when the Rendez-Vous started. 

Many firms are already looking at the money they have saved by not sending an army of senior people to Monte Carlo and are quietly re-assessing the value of the event. In this era of heightened concern about climate change, they will also be looking very hard at the carbon footprint of global travel. Dramatically reducing the numbers of people flying to the south of France is an easy win in their drive to be net zero carbon emitters.

Does this mean the Rendez-Vous is dead?

Probably not yet, but on the assumption the organisers attempt to put it on next year I expect we will see a greatly reduced presence. It may well be the beginning of the end.

Of course, the die-hards will be there and I expect most firms will send small teams to ensure they have a presence. One of the first questions they will be asked on their return to their offices is “Was it worth it?”. Their bosses won’t be looking for anecdotes about glitzy cocktail parties but hard evidence of demonstrable business value. So, 2022 might be just a much-reduced shadow of past bonanzas. 2023 could be the year that the Rendez-Vous de Septembre really starts to struggle if the organisers cannot find a new magic formula.

I don’t take any great pleasure in saying this, especially as I have many fond memories of my handful of forays into the hard-bargaining, hard-gossiping, hard-drinking world of the Rendez-Vous. But the world moves on and it looks increasingly as if the Rendez-Vous is becoming a relic of the past.

How long will Tories tolerate Johnson’s rank incompetence?

The distinguishing hallmark of this government and its lasting legacy will be its almost criminal incompetence. No government in my lifetime or, as far as I can see, in the history of modern government in this country, has so consistently blundered from crisis-to-crisis. Surely, there must come a time when even the most loyal of Tories realise that the man they put in charge of their party and the country is an embarrassment to both?

There are signs that Tory voters are turning against Johnson’s government.

The shattering defeat they suffered at the hands of the Liberal Democrats in the Chesham and Amersham byelection in June came hard on the heels of the loss of a significant number of key seats in the May council elections, especially in traditional Tory voting areas in the south. What analysis there has been of these defeats has mainly focussed on the strong Remain votes there were in these areas, suggesting the losses are a punishment for Brexit.

That is only a partial explanation and one that actually suits Tories looking for straws to clutch.

Brexit has undoubtedly played a part in these limited electoral setbacks but it is not so much Brexit of itself that has dismayed Tory voters but the incompetence of Brexit that is starting to gnaw away at them. Johnson’s idiotic sloganising about an “Oven Ready Brexit” is coming back to haunt him. Try finding an oven ready Brexit on the empty supermarket shelves.

To the charge sheet of incompetence can be added almost every response to the Covid-19 pandemic, apart from the initial phase of the vaccine roll-out.

Now, we have the unforgivably shambolic handling of the retreat from Afghanistan. This was flagged up months ago when Trump did his deal with the Taliban. Biden made no secret of his determination to see a full American withdrawal through to its conclusion. The Johnson government has no excuses for not being well-prepared and should have been evacuating large numbers of people from that blighted country months ago.

Johnson’s bumbling image, once thought endearing but merely superficial, is now ruthlessly exposed as all the man has to offer. It is a fatal character flaw in a country’s leader. His obviously paranoid fear of challenge from within government has meant that he has surrounded himself with a second-rate Cabinet. Wherever you look in this government you find incompetence, indecision and chaos.

We should not lose sight of the human cost of these failures. How many lives continue to be lost as Johnson continues to blunder through the corridors of power?

I cannot help feeling this will continue to gnaw away at Tory voters, even without an effective opposition to exploit Johnson’s many vulnerabilities. Tories are not, on the whole, the type of people who will forgive incompetence and that is what many political analysts are missing. The Remain voting Tories would probably – eventually – forgive Johnson for delivering Brexit if it was a competently delivered Brexit. There will be plenty more headlines to come about the unwanted consequences of leaving the European Union, especially when people start travelling abroad in greater numbers again. There will be long queues at passport control for us non-EU citizens, shocking bills for mobile phone roaming charges, horror stories about the cost of medical treatment for those not realising they now have to take out their own medical insurance when travelling to Europe – and the list will grow.

The unwanted and unplanned for consequences of Brexit will not go away. They will be with us for a very long time to come. Wishing them away will not save the Tories. They will have to take responsibility for them and for the man who is presiding over them.

No government is perfect – and the Covid-19 pandemic has tested every country – but never has a government failed so consistently in every department and in the face of every challenge. Many of us thoroughly disliked the Thatcher government of the 1980s but at least for a decade it was competent. When Thatcher stopped delivering, especially as the disaster of the Poll Tax caught up with her, the Tories ruthlessly dispatched her.

We could do with a bit of that Tory ruthlessness now.

The Secret History of WW2 starts to tell the stories behind Operation Aerial

It was great to be featured in last night’s first episode Channel 5 Select’s new series The Secret History of World War II, telling some of the amazing, yet little known, stories about the evacuations from France in June 1940 after the fall of Dunkirk.

Over 220,000 troops and civilians were rescued from the advancing Nazi forces after the last boat left Dunkirk on 4 June but little is known about how those evacuations that went under the code names Operation Cycle and Operation Aerial came together and lifted so many desperate souls from the ports around the Brittany and Atlantic coast of France. This is something I have tried to put right in my new book Operation Aerial: Churchill’s Second Miracle of Deliverance, due to be published by Sabrestorm Publishing later this summer.

Starting to tell some of the amazing stories about fleeing from France in 1940 with the help of Channel 5 Select

When the production company behind the new series, Woodcut Media, approached me to take part in their new series I jumped at the opportunity and was delighted with the results in last night’s programme. This included the sinking of the Lancastria at St Nazaire – Britain’s largest maritime loss of life – the surrender of the Highland Division at St Valery and the spiriting out of the world’s supply of heavy water from under the noses of the Nazis by an eccentric British aristocrat. These are just a few of the stories that will be in my book.

The programme is available for the next month on the My5 website or the 5 Select catch-up on Freeview 55, Sky 153, Virgin Media 152, TalkTalk TV55, or Freesat 133.

WW1 racism: in sickness and in death

The revelations about the appalling lack of respect accorded to Indian and African troops who died serving the British Empire in the First World War comes as little surprise, although that does not lessen the shock and shame.

Anyone who has seriously studied that war and the role played by Empire soldiers will know that racial prejudice and discrimination was rife. Just as it was inhumanely manifest in how they were treated in death, so it was in how they were treated when they were wounded or ill.

It was a constant background to the story of Thomas Kelly, the Irish Catholic doctor from Galway, whose story I told in Fighting for the Empire.

He was a doctor in the Indian Medical Service which, as the name suggests, was responsible for providing medical services to Indian regiments. He had already been doing this for nearly 20 years when the First World War broke out and he had run into many examples of racism during his career. The doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps – only responsible for treating white soldiers ­­– looked down on the IMS doctors. Kelly had been dismissed as a “Sikh fellow” by one RAMC doctor when serving in Tibet, the implication being that by looking after the Indian troops he had somehow gone native in the eyes of RAMC medics.

Wasteful discrimination
In 1914 Kelly was put in command of an IMS medical unit and sent to Egypt where he quickly found himself arguing with the British commanders of Indian military units about their treatment of the men under their command. A constant irritation to him was what he saw as the wasteful separation of medical services, the IMS for Indian troops and the RAMC for British soldiers. Too often, Indian soldiers were turned away from RAMC facilities, something Kelly refused to reciprocate, treating anyone who needed help.

This separation started to break down in 1915 when he was sent to Aden where the Turks were forcing the British back. There he found the medical services overwhelmed and was given a free hand to sort the mess out, including being put in command of an RAMC unit alongside his own IMS unit in the nick of time as a major counter-offensive was being launched. His work in creating a hospital overnight out of dockside warehouses won him one of his many Mentions in Dispatches.

From Aden he was sent to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) where the medical situation was even worse following the capture of Kut by the Turks after a long siege, one of Britain’s great military failures. It was as if little or nothing had been learnt in the wake of Florence Nightingale’s encounter with poor medical care in the Crimea over half a century earlier.

In Mesopotamia, the separation of RAMC and IMS medical units was part of the problem, as Kelly pointed out to the military commanders whenever he had the opportunity. Eventually, they gave way and merged them in the field with Kelly put in command of one of the first of the new generation of combined hospital facilities in Nasariyah.

He was not finished.

Campaign for equal quality of care
His next campaign was to ensure that both British and Indian troops, although still on separate wards in the combined hospitals, received the same quality of treatment. His most insistent complaint was the refusal of the military high command to allow British nurses to care for Indian troops instead of having to rely on less well trained male Indian orderlies. There is a remarkable exchange of memoranda in the National Archives between Kelly and Lt General Stanley Maude, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Mesopotamia, in which Maude played every card imaginable, many of them insultingly racist, to block Kelly’s demands.

Kelly, second right, shows Gen Maude around his new combined hospital accompanied by Sister Phoebe Exshaw

Eventually, Kelly won as the War Office in London, reeling from Parliamentary criticism of the collapse of the medical services at Kut, stepped in and authorised a trial. Within two weeks Kelly had six British nurses, all volunteers, led by Sister Phoebe Exshaw, settling in at Nasariyah.

The combined hospitals and field ambulances, together with the deployment of trained British nurses gradually became established across all the combat zones, small victories against the institutional racism that casts its long, tragic shadow across so many aspects of the history of the British Empire. It is a shadow that needs to be acknowledged but not allowed to completely obscure the stories of those like Kelly constantly struggling to live out a higher set of values in the service of humanity.

Kelly was Mentioned in Dispatches on four occasions during WW1 and awarded the Distinguished Service Order on the recommendation of General Maude, a magnanimous gesture. At the end of the war, aged 48, he married Gertrude Fenn in Bombay, one of those six nurses who volunteered to break down some of those racial barriers.

Fighting for the Empire was published by Sabrestorm Publishing in 2016.

Jonathan Fryer: farewell dear friend

Jonathan Fryer lived many lives and he excelled at all of them: politician, author, journalist, Quaker, friend. His death last Friday at the age of 70 after a short illness has prompted many fine tributes. Let me add mine.

Above everything, Jonathan was a great friend. He touched so many people’s lives with his kindness and simple humanity. He always sought the good in everyone, anger being an emotion that only rarely broke through before quickly evaporating.

This does not mean he was not tough. He had to be given his early life vividly recounted in the self-published autobiography Eccles Cakes: An Odd Tale of Survival.

Courage. That is the word that kept recurring in my mind as I read this powerful insight into Jonathan’s troubled childhood. Courage in writing it. Courage in dealing with the abuse he suffered. Courage in throwing himself into the chaos and danger of a war zone on his own resources at the age of 19.

It is a shocking story but often also a heart-warming one as it shows how he triumphed over everything. He never hid the grim reality of his life at home but skilfully managed to avoid excessive self-pity by restricting it to the occasional flashback insight into his feelings at the time.

What a shame we shall now never read the second volume of his autobiography. Jonathan started writing this but set it aside last year as he secured a commission for another book. He was a prolific author, bringing a wide variety of subjects to life, and always full of helpful advice for other authors. His fifteen or so books covered a diverse range, from Oscar Wilde, Soho in the Fifties and Sixties to international affairs, reflecting Jonathan’s many deep interests and passions.

It was as a politician that I knew him best.

He had been a Young Liberal since 1964 when he heard Jo Grimond at his inspirational best at school – and was chairman of the Liberal Club when he was at Oxford University – but it was when he returned to London from Brussels in the early 1980s that our paths rapidly converged.

He threw himself in London Liberal politics, standing for Parliament in Chelsea in 1983 and in the once Liberal-held seat of Orpington in 1987 where he also served as councillor on the London Borough of Bromley.

Jonathan with my wife, Mariette Mason, who was then chair of Leyton Liberal Democrats in 1990

For four years I was his campaign manager and agent in Leyton which he fought in 1992. He gave it everything, as he always did. His brilliance with languages meant he mastered Urdu within months of being adopted to fight Leyton with its large Asian population. When I expressed my amazement, he told me that after the first five languages learning a new one was easy, a very rare moment of boastfulness.

He fought two more General Elections in 2010 and 2017.

While I believe he would have made a very fine MP, his real passion was Europe and he dearly wanted to be an MEP. I did once tell him that Westminster would benefit from his insights into foreign affairs and the media more than the EU where he would be preaching to the converted: he was not convinced. He fought every European Parliament election from the first one in 1979, coming within 0.6% of winning a seat in 2004 and being fourth on the party’s London list in 2019 when the Liberal Democrats won three seats in the capital. Brexit was a cruel personal blow to this cherished ambition.

He was a consummate internationalist, as well as Liberal to his core. He held various positions in European and international organisations and was a trusted adviser on foreign affairs to several Liberal Democrat leaders, especially Paddy Ashdown.

He rarely, if ever, flaunted his many friendships with the great and the good of Liberal and Liberal Democrat politics, the media or literary circles. It was easy to be taken by surprise by the extent of friendships, as I was on more than one occasion, such as encountering Jeremy Thorpe at one of Jonathan’s Christmas parties.

He never allowed his own difficult childhood to reflect on his enjoyment of the family life of others. He was always happy to be invited to family occasions and see young children running around his house at those Christmas parties.

We should not overlook his religious faith as that also sat deep within his character. He was active within the Religious Society of Friends (The Quakers), he was one of the small group that in 1979 set up the Quaker House in Brussels. His contributions to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day were always accessible and enlightening.

A final farewell

The final, smiling picture of Jonathan taken on Easter Sunday, less than two weeks before he died, with his friend Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett drinking a Campari Negroni in the garden of the hospice in Hackney, shows a man at peace with himself.

May he Rest in Peace and, as he believed, Rise in Glory.

• There is a detailed biography on Wikipedia

• Jonathan worked at the BBC World Service for many years and was an active member of the Association of European Journalists. Many of his former colleagues have added their heartfelt tributes to the AEJ-UK website.

Fighting the plague: history repeats itself

It is strange how often history repeats itself. As the Covid-19 pandemic has swept around the world over the last year I have often wondered how Thomas Kelly, the Irish doctor whose remarkable story I told in Fighting for the Empire would have reacted.

He was at the epicentre of a battle to stop the plague spreading to India 115 years ago and had to combat plague deniers, opposition to vaccinations and more.

Captain Thomas Kelly was in his mid-30s and serving with the Indian medical Service. He had just returned from Tibet and was already overdue his seven year leave back to Ireland, which he had left in January 1897. Instead of returning to the Emerald Isle, his superiors packed him off to the remote province of Seistan in Persia (present day Iran) where the plague was decimating the local population and threatening the trade routes between Iran and India.

It was dangerous. Previous medical officers had caught the disease and died. Over two years the population of the town of Nasratabad, where Kelly was based, had been reduced from 2500 to 300.

Kelly knew what he had to do to eradicate the plague and it included persuading locals to burn the clothes and possessions of plague victims. This was deliberately twisted by local religious leaders who started rumours flying that the British doctor and his helpers were burning the Koran, dressing the women in nice clothes so they could seduce them and using new medicines – inoculations – to spread the disease.

Rampaging mob
Fear, ignorance and religion are a potent mix and on 27 March 1906 a mob of 500 started rampaging through the streets of Nasratabad, quickly burning down a small Belgian hospital before turning on the British consulate and Kelly’s temporary laboratory, where just six British officers and 20 Indian sepoys were stationed.

Kelly and the commanding officer, Captain Macpherson, went outside in an attempt to pacify the mob but the situation was already beyond control and they were beaten and stoned, retreating, bruised and battered into the main consulate building as the troops inside fired warning shots over the heads of the rioters.

The rifle shots were sufficient to alert the Russians in their consulate in the immediately adjacent sister town of Husseinabad to the seriousness of the trouble that was brewing. They were in a rather stronger position in terms of military forces as a detachment of Cossacks [Russian cavalry] had recently been posted there and they were quickly on their way to disperse the baying crowd, some of whom were by then on the roof of the besieged consulate with flaming torches. The Russians knew that if they burnt out the British the riot would gather momentum and they would be the next target: they were protecting their own interests as much as those of Kelly and his British colleagues.

News of the attack on the consulate quickly spread round the world, hitting the British papers just four days later.

“BRITISH CONSULATE MOBBED. AN OUTBREAK IN SEISTAN. The following telegram, says Reuter, has been received in St. Petersburg from Teheran:—”A fanatical Persian doctor named Kukema incited the population of Seistan against the European doctors, who had begun to take the plague sufferers from their houses to the hospitals, destroyed the medicines and surgical appliances, and attacked the British Consulate. The Consul himself and the British doctor were beaten with sticks and the Customs-house was only saved by the timely arrival of the Russian Consul with Cossacks.

“The responsibility for the outrage rests with the Governor of Khorassan, who, acting contrary to the orders of the Persian Government, sent the fanatic to Seistan to declare that no epidemic of plague existed in the province and that the reports of its prevalence were the inventions of Europeans.”

It took two years but Kelly rid Seistan of the plague.

The Kelly story is told in Fighting for the Empire.

Slavery: Lloyd’s is right to review the past but it must address the present too

The decision by Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, to scrutinise its 300 year old archives to gain a fuller understanding of how insurance supported the slave trade is very welcome. It should help historians gain a clearer picture of the extent of the trade and how it operated. No-one should hesitate to applaud such a positive step.

Lloyd’s has already acknowledged as “shameful” the role the marine insurance market played in facilitating the slave trade and has pledged to find ways of contributing financially to appropriate causes by way of reparation. This new investigation should give a sharper focus to that desire to make good for the sins of its forebearers. It may also raise more awkward questions.

It is very likely that some of the archived insurance policies record how the slaves that were transported across the Atlantic and to Europe, including the United Kingdom, were acquired and from whom. This will remind people that sometimes one of the key elements of the slave trade was their initial capture by African slave traders, although it was always European money that provided the incentive. It may also expose whether any Lloyd’s underwriters found devious ways of insuring slave ships after Britain outlawed the trade in 1807.

Exposing the crimes of the past is all well and good but it means little if not matched by actions in the present.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that almost 25m people worldwide are caught in modern slavery as forced or coerced labour, with a further 15.4m girls and women trapped in forced marriages. These are shocking figures.

If Lloyd’s wants to make a positive contribution to addressing its past, it should also investigate the extent to which its syndicates insure businesses that benefit from modern slavery. This will cause great discomfort in some quarters. One of the largest groups of modern slaves are the million plus Uyghurs imprisoned in Xinjiang, many forced to work on production lines for Chinese manufacturing companies. There is a lot of Chinese money in the London insurance market and it is very likely that somewhere an underwriter is insuring a business that benefits from the brutal exploitation of the Uyghurs. Lloyd’s should ferret out these connections – and many more linked to modern slavery – if it wants to hold its head high on this issue.

Planning for the end of cash is essential

Fifty years ago today the UK made the momentous jump to a decimal currency. It was not without its doubters and certainly not without its opponents, but it worked. Now, we are faced with the prospect of another fundamental change in how we use money: the end of the cash economy.

This has been creeping up on us for several years but has been turbo-charged by the pandemic. Unlike decimalisation, however, we do not seem to be planning for it and that is creating unnecessary anxiety. The government, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority need to address this urgently. The Bank has at least begun to acknowledge the challenge society now faces: “…the barriers to alternative payment adoption may have been permanently broken by Covid”, it said in its recent bulletin on Cash in the time of Covid.

Last year, cash transactions dropped significantly, following years of already step decline. According to data from UK Finance, in 2008 60% of payments were made in cash, dropping to 28% by the end of 2018. Before the pandemic it was projecting a further fall to 9% by 2028: we are probably close to that already, although there may be a modest reversal when the economy fully re-opens.

In the face of these trends it seems inevitable that cash will be almost completely redundant by the end of this decade. We need to accept that inevitability and start preparing accordingly. Too much of the discussion around this topic seems to be aimed at finding ways of preserving the use of cash, striking a Canute-like pose against the relentless march of the digital age.

Protecting the vulnerable
There are vulnerable groups who are going to need a lot of help and support to come to terms with the disappearance of cash. People who have no fixed address and have a very poor credit history need financial products tailored for them. Groups that we must not lose sight of too are people with controlling partners or who are caught in abusive situations, including modern slavery. We should see the end of cash as an opportunity to confront these problems, not say we need to preserve cash because we don’t have a better answer.

We should have considerably less sympathy for other groups wanting to preserve the use of cash, from the cash-in-hand tradesmen to organised crime, especially drug crime.

What we have to do is to help the estimated eight million UK citizens who are still outside the digital banking system to ease their way into it. In the short term, this means preserving their access to cash through bank branches and ATMs.

Bank branch closures are a more immediate concern than the decline of ATMs, as they still provide an essential service to many people using cash and cheques. The banks have an informal “last branch standing” agreement which needs to be enforced by the FCA and needs to embrace the Post Office counter network too. For at least the next five years we need to ensure that all but the most remote communities have relatively easy access to at least a part-time branch.

This seems a better option than asking shops to agree to hand out cash even when the customer is not making a purchase. This would be likely to quickly increase the number of shops that opt out of trading in cash completely.

Peak ATM has passed
ATMs proliferated in the last decade, peaking at just over 70,000 in 2015. Since then it has been a story of decline but the latest figures show there are still 54,300 cash machines in operation, the vast majority free-to-use. This is back to 2004 levels. How much further this availability can fall before becoming a serious problem is hard to know.

Peak ATM: Over 70,000 in 2015, now 54,300

We have all got very used to the luxury of most towns having dozens of ATMs but that comes at a price – and that raises one of the most difficult questions in this transition away from cash. Who pays to maintain a service for a dwindling number of people? If you accept that this number will include some of the most vulnerable then just slapping charges on the use of cash will hardly help them and would not be politically acceptable.

This has to be part of the transition planning, however, as the cost per ATM transaction – currently about 21p – will only rise as fewer transactions go through an under-used network.

Alongside these practical issues are a plethora of other concerns, largely around trust. Banks are still not liked and there are legitimate fears around cyber security and the control of personal data. These all have to be addressed, although I would rather one of my cards was hacked than I was mugged in the street for a wallet full of cash. Banks and businesses have to keep ahead of the criminals and be open and honest when they fail, otherwise this battle to win hearts as well as minds over to the idea of a cashless economy will be lost.

There will come a day when the cash economy is a topic studied in economic history alongside the barter economy. My guess is that day will come sooner than many are prepared for.

Incompetent, vindictive EU has validated Brexit

The unedifying spectacle of the world’s wealthiest countries squabbling over supplies of Covid vaccines will have one lasting-effect: it will validate Brexit in the minds of many British citizens.

It has been easy to criticise the UK government for its many obvious failings in the face of the coronavirus pandemic but its vaccine procurement and distribution programme is a shining light in that gloom.

By contrast, the European Union’s stumbling, tardy attempts to lead a continent-wide programme is a car crash. It certainly wasn’t helped when the French Pasteur Institute threw in the towel admitting it couldn’t produce an effective vaccine, leaving it with fewer EU-domiciled producers than it originally anticipated. But there is no excuse for the way it has behaved over the last week.

When the EU Health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides (pictured above), pressed the panic button last weekend she started down the road that led to last night’s shambolic, humiliating volte face by the EU over Northern Ireland.

Any objective assessment of how and why the UK is doing so well and the EU so badly has to point the finger firmly at the EU’s procurement and approval processes. Kyriakides’ initial attempts to turn the blame onto AstraZeneca, with the implication that it was somehow favouring the UK over the EU when there are two separate contracts in place, were laced with threats that seemed out of place when facing the challenges of fighting a global pandemic.

EU President raised the temperature
Instead of pulling back from the heavy implications that the UK was getting more than its fair share of the vaccines, the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, encouraged that narrative, adding threats of export bans. She waved around a contract that she claimed gave her legal authority for such drastic actions. I am no lawyer, but if she seriously thinks phrases such as “Best Reasonable Efforts” give the EU the authority to behave in such a high-handed manner then I think she needs to get some better lawyers.

While EU leaders were falling over themselves to raise the temperature of the debate and politicise their procurement failings and contractual problems, the UK government wisely stood back. This was, after all, a commercial dispute.

Last night, the EU left Johnson, Northern Ireland political leaders and the Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin with no option but to step in. What was profoundly shocking was how, after years of Brexit negotiations rightly prioritising the sanctity of the Good Friday Agreement, the EU was prepared to jeopardise it the moment it suited them. Thank goodness sanity prevailed as midnight approached.

The EU has heaped humiliation on top of incompetence. If the Commission was a government, von der Leyen and Kyriakides would be facing calls to resign: Kyriakides should certainly go.

Wiser voices prevail
The source of those wiser voices that prevailed in Brussels last night might be a little surprising. Michel Barnier, no friend of the UK, was one of them. He spoke a lot of sense in an interview in The Times this morning.

Barnier: Injecting some sanity into the EU position

“We are facing an extraordinarily serious crisis, which is creating a lot of suffering, which is causing a lot of deaths in the UK, in France, in Germany, everywhere. And I believe that we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of one upmanship or unhealthy competition,” he says.

“I recommend preserving the spirit of co-operation between us. This is the substance of my message today, because we are unfortunately going to have many chances in the coming years to show solidarity.

“Reciprocally. In the fight against terrorism, climate change, financial crises, disasters.”

This row will have a lasting effect on British attitudes to Brexit.

This clumsy, ill-thought out, vindictive move by the EU to deflect attention from its incompetence, has done more than Johnson, Gove and the Brexiters to advance the argument that the UK is better out of the EU than in it. Those soft Brexiters who might have been wondering whether they backed the right option in the 2016 referendum, are now thinking that a bit of chaos at the ports is a price worth paying if we continue to get our vaccination programme running ahead of almost the rest of the world, and far, far ahead of Europe.

The EU has ensured that opportunities to argue for the UK rejoining the EU will be fewer and the case much harder to make. This will have implications for the debate over Scottish independence too. The EU couldn’t have dealt Johnson a better hand if it tried.