Richard North, 04/04/2021  

Any which way you look at it, Alan Duncan's string of epithets published in the Mail about a serving prime minister is not normal politics.

Even in my lifetime, we've had some pretty dire premiers, but I can't recall any national newspaper publishing anything like the collection we saw in Mail, claiming that Johnson had a "self-deluding mock-romantic passion", that he is a clown, an embarrassing buffoon with no diplomacy skills, an international stain on our reputation, an ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot, and an egotistical showman.

But the worst of if is that all this is nothing new and was largely known when Johnson went to the country in 2019. His major character flaws had already been "priced in" and even the very worst he had to offer would not have induced the majority to have voted for Corbyn's Labour.

Nor indeed is Starmer making any dent in Johnson's electoral prospects, despite his determination to take the fight to Johnson with "a new agenda to root out economic inequalities, redefine the purpose of public services and create secure, high-skilled jobs across the country".

This is in the full expectation that Johnson will "go early" and trigger a general election in two years. Starmer says he's "looking forward to taking the mask off and opening the throttle" and has instructed the party to be election ready for 2023. "The next election, whenever it comes, will be a once in a lifetime chance to get Britain working for everyone", the leader of the opposition adds.

The electoral calculus here is based on Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) figures which suggest that economic growth will hit 4 percent this year, rising to 7.3 percent in 2022, before dipping to 1.7, 1.6 and 1.7 percent in the subsequent three years.

Starmer is convinced that Johnson will exploit the short electoral window of opportunity after the economy has undergone a consumer-led Covid "bounce", before it begins to flatline – presumably when the adverse effect of Brexit begin to be felt.

But, as Pete pointed out yesterday, the left's agenda – which is so distant from the concerns of ordinary voters – is likely to keep the Tories in power for another decade.

Since Johnson is capitalising on the success of the vaccination programme and is intent on ignoring the difficulties people are experiencing with Brexit, one possible USP which Starmer could employ might have been the utter train wreck that Brexit has become – offering an alternative path through the morass created by the TCA.

That might especially be the case if the OBR estimates are right and, by 2023, Johnson will be basking in the glow of a shallow economic recovery. A politician on top of his game might be able, convincingly, to explain to the electorate that any recovery experienced is built on foundations of sand and cannot be sustained.

Unfortunately – for him and anyone hoping for electoral relief from Johnson – Starmer has chosen to opt out of the Brexit debate and, therefore, will not be in any position to highlight Johnson's failings in an area where he will become increasingly vulnerable.

Here it is the case that any chance the "rejoin" tendency might have had of securing Labour support probably evaporated with the less than stellar performance of the Commission and EU Member States in their handling of their vaccination programme.

But this should not have prevented Starmer from pointing out the more egregious failings of the TCA (and the Withdrawal Agreement, for that matter), and pushing for ongoing talks with the EU – which are likely to be taken more seriously if the UK government is under different management.

Starmer's problem now is that, having abandoned Brexit as an issue, it is not something that can be resurrected at the drop of a hat. Not least, it needs a consistent, well-thought-out policy line and shadow ministers who have a far better grasp of the issues than any have displayed so far.

But, without an ongoing political champion to give an adversarial tinge to Brexit-related stories, the media will find (and are finding) it difficult to maintain the momentum, with the issue degenerated into the occasional, sporadic whinge from left-leaning papers.

Should then, at a later date, Labour wish to re-prioritise Brexit, sudden concern after a long period of silence will look too much like political opportunism to be convincing. Labour must either "own" the issue now, or lose any claim to championing Brexit victims.

Since the decision has already been made, the party has effectively blown it, turning Brexit into a non-issue – as Pete points out in another of his pieces. If the Tories also say nothing, we end up with the Brexit that never was.

One wonders, though, whether Starmer even has the sense to realise what a mistake he has made. For, despite the ambiguity of January's trade figures, additional research (Times paywall) indicates that about 30 percent of British businesses, which previous have undertaken export business, have stopped trading in the EU since the end of last year.

This information comes from a Survation poll of 1,040 business leaders between 16 and 22 February, seeking out post-Brexit trading experiences on behalf of the business group London First and the professional services firm EY. In addition to the dropout figure, the poll suggests that businesses are struggling with the new regime despite 71 percent claiming that they had felt prepared for it.

John Dickie, acting chief executive of London First, says that it is clear that the disruptions to UK-EU trade goes beyond teething problems, something which is very close to qualifying as a statement of the bleedin' obvious. But even if it needs to be spelled out, it points to the fact that the structural problems are not going to go away.

The proportion of respondents who expected long-term Brexit disruption was 16 percent; 33 percent said they expected a mix of short and long-term problems; and only 28 percent said that they foresaw just short-term challenges.

Dickie says that, "If the government is to champion global Britain successfully it must redouble its efforts to fix our trading relationship with the EU", but it is already very clear that Johnson has lost interest in Brexit and has nothing to gain from the difficulties being continually highlighted.

This has left a political vacuum which Labour could have occupied to its advantage, but has decided to abandon the field. In effect, businesses – and many individuals – has been abandoned, leaving then politically unrepresented. Johnson's "f**k business" jibe went deep, signalling that they are on their own.

Whether this will have any long-term political impact, though, is very hard to say. Sally Jones, of EY, says that, "UK businesses are resilient and innovative and it is clear that they are working hard to adapt and overcome these challenges, while at the same time seizing new opportunities".

That much is very clear. Businesses are resilient and many are adapting to the new trading environment. But they can only do so much without active political support. And if there are no answers from politics, where then will they go?

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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