Richard North, 14/02/2020  

I think I rather like this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people".

That rather explains the media's obsession with personality politics, forever failing to address the detail of events or the ideas behind them, and why Johnson's reshuffle holds such fascination for the collective.

But, in the grander scheme of things, it don't mean nuffink – as they used to say. One set of nonentities has been partially replaced by another. In a decade or less, no one will remember any of them - except Cummings, who will be writing a column in the Telegraph.

What could be important is the conclusion offered by the Guardian. "This prime minister", it says, "is not the first among equals, as holders of his office were once said to be. He is the sole source of authority within a cabinet that is no longer made up of ministers and now consists of mere courtiers".

Pete, in his own way, is more direct. In his view, Johnson is setting the Tory party up for an implosion. "He's turning into Farage; suspicious of talent, surrounding himself with yes men and sycophants, insulating himself from things he doesn't want to hear and hiding from inconvenient details".

The Times, it seems, is not so very far away from that position, having its columnist Philip Collins argue that Johnson has rewarded the cabinet's second-raters while removing anyone who might challenge his authority. Thus, it asserts, the reshuffle shows the weakness at the heart of No.10.

The Mirror is of like mind, running a pull quote on its front page, declaring that the "Country is now run by a Government filled with spineless stooges". But, if we wanted anything different, we could go to the Telegraph, but it has ruled itself out of the game, forever tarnished by its drooling obeisance over its former columnist. We will see what we see.

In the meantime, the game goes on, with the posturing so wearily familiar that hardly anyone can be bothered to report it. One exception, for the moment, is the paywall-free Guardian, which seems to be the only paper currently picking up on Macron's latest strop.

The French president, we are told, is making "a last-ditch push for a tougher EU negotiating position with Britain over the post-Brexit relationship" despite concerns among other Member States that they risk blowing up the talks before they have begun.

That latter observation is interesting because the paper has finally noticed the mood music I was tuned into yesterday, which seems to suggest that the upcoming talks could be over before they even start. EU sources are telling it that there is concern among some Member States that negotiating avenues could be closed off even before the two sides sit down to talk in the first week of March.

France, however, has been an outspoken voice, albeit not entirely isolated among the 27 member states. It is calling for more "ambitious" commitments to be a condition for the UK government in any future treaty and wants more "clarity".

Apparently, Macron's ambassador to the EU, during a three-hour meeting on Wednesday evening - which followed an eight-hour session among diplomats earlier in the week - insisted that there should be no scope for the UK to "misunderstand" the need for maintaining standards to EU levels.

With that, it seems another draft of the negotiating mandate is being circulated among the Member States, but the "colleagues" have so far bottled out on revising the most controversial and sensitive section, covering state aid and environmental, social and workers' rights.

Instead, the internal EU debate will continue into next week to allow ministers to then sign off on the position on 25 February prior to negotiations with the UK starting in the first week of March. A diplomat stresses that the position has to be concluded swiftly "to maintain credibility with our negotiating partner".

Generally, though, these undercurrents are being swamped in the UK by the media noise although there are, of course, serious issues feeding into the news agenda, not least the escalating crisis over the spread of the novel coronavirus, now officially named Covid-19.

What has been discussed to an extent is the economic impact of this disease, but there has been very little specific evaluation of the epidemic on the UK's plans for global trading in the wake of Brexit. But clearly, the disease has the potential to trigger a global recession. And, if this happens, it could leave the UK dangerously exposed.

Should the disease become rooted in the UK and take on epidemic proportions, the strain on the NHS, central and local government and on businesses caught in the economic fallout could be such that concern over Brexit – already being pushed down the agenda by the Johnson administration – might become swamped by more pressing concerns.

In any event, the economic slowdown in China, which is still to play out to its fullest extent, is bound to have an effect and may in itself slow down still further our sluggish economic performance. If in China the epidemic has closed down whole cities and cost billions in lost production, there is no reason to believe that the same could not happen here, as sports centres are converted into makeshift isolation hospitals.

On this basis, now is not the time to be having protracted disputes with our European neighbours, especially as there may be a need for practical coordination on health measures, the movement of people, and for economic planning. Ironically, though, the virus may do for freedom of movement what Brexit never could.

The upside is that, with the advances in medical technology, we could have a usable vaccine within the year – possibly early enough to militate against the worst effects of an epidemic.

No one will dispute, however, that the epidemic in China is having a political as well as an economic effect. And that, should the disease become rampant in the UK, is something to watch for here.

In his current reshuffle, Johnson has shown himself to be more interested in power than capability. But an epidemic caused by a novel virus is not something you can blag your way out of. The prime minister will have to start showing organisational and leadership capabilities which have so far not been evident.

This, rather than Brexit, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back, although the greater effect would undoubtedly arise from a botched Brexit and a rampaging epidemic.

Given the unknowns, which can only pile uncertainty on top of an already uncertain position, one might have thought that Johnson would yesterday have been looking to strengthen the capabilities of his government across the board.

If his critics have got it right though, and his aim has been primarily the consolidation of his own power, then he will have plenty of time to reflect on the old adage that, with power comes responsibility. And if (or more likely, when) things go belly-up, there will be no-one else to take the blame.

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