In January 1979, a beleaguered Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, returned from a Caribbean summit to a country that appeared in crisis. A week earlier, truck drivers had gone on strike, cutting off petrol supplies in the “winter of discontent”. When the prime minister arrived at London’s Heathrow airport, he held a press conference in which nothing memorable was said. Instead, in a phrase that has become code for political complacency, Callaghan became for ever associated with the following day’s Sun newspaper headline: “Crisis? What crisis?”
His fate was sealed. Callaghan lost the next general election to Margaret Thatcher. The lesson for politicians is the importance of perception in a crisis. If something feels like a crisis, it is effectively a crisis. Britain now confronts its most serious emergency since the second world war. It faces the unprecedented challenge of coronavirus while adjusting to a new diminished status outside the European Union. The country’s health service is at breaking point, and its future as a unified state is on the line. All this goes unmentioned by Boris Johnson, perhaps because he disingenuously promised that Brexit would save the NHS.
His handling of the pandemic has been a failure of statecraft so big that it can be seen from space. This month, for the third time this year, he did not act until the virus was spreading out of control. Now hundreds are dying every day. Parliament should be recalled so that MPs can make the case for a better response against a new, highly transmissible Covid variant. Mr Johnson could summon MPs back to discuss the pandemic, not just Brexit, but won’t because that risks alerting the public to the sorry state we are in. Downing Street aims to survive mistakes rather than learn from them. A record of obfuscation and retreat means voters place little faith in prime ministerial reassurance.
Mr Johnson prefers catching bouquets to dodging brickbats. Next week, parliament will sit for two days to finish what Mr Johnson started in June 2016. MPs will be asked to pass into law a hard Brexit – despite scarcely having had time to read the new treaty, let alone properly consider it. Without shame, Mr Johnson seeks credit for his agreement and the freedom to run our own domestic policy unconstrained by EU law. Gloating will deepen European mistrust and our isolation. It is also insensitive, as most businesses are ill-prepared for the changes. The recent sight of lorries backing up for miles from Dover, which handles 17% of the UK’s entire trade in goods, is a warning of how bad things could get.
Mr Johnson’s recklessness might be explained by Labour resignation. Sir Keir Starmer says that his party will vote for Mr Johnson’s deal, because the alternative is to leave the EU without one. Labour risks getting sucked into Mr Johnson’s mess. However, in the 2019 election Labour lost two remain seats to the Tories, but more than 50 leave ones. The message was clear: in 2016 people were given the right to vote and expected the result to be respected.
Sir Keir is, therefore, right to back the deal, but that will not be enough. To regain trust, he will have to find a narrative that convinces the public he is fighting the next election, not the last one. It would be a rhetorical error for Sir Keir to apologise for Labour’s opposition to Tory Europhobia. Under Mr Johnson, the Conservatives may ignore their own past, but they will never say sorry for it. Britain lacks a responsible government able to construct a coherent compensating policy for either of the twin crises enveloping the country. Under Mr Johnson it is far from clear that we will ever get one.