Coronavirus turns Boris Johnson’s honeymoon into nightmare

July 02, 2020 10:29
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson came close to death during three weeks of intensive treatment for COVID19. Photo: Bloomberg

When Boris Johnson woke up on February 1, the future looked as bright as the sun shining through his bedroom window. After three and a half bitter years since the Brexit Referendum in 2016, he had led Britain out of Europe and won a cast-iron majority in Parliament.

Four months later, the sunshine has turned into a long, dark night. In Britain, nearly 44,550 people have died of COVID19, the highest toll in Europe and the third highest in the world after the United States and Brazil. Johnson himself came close to death during three weeks of intensive treatment for the disease in April.

The public is highly critical of his management of the virus. They ask why the toll is more than four times higher than that of Germany, which has 9,000 deaths in a population 20 per cent higher. Germany is now returning to normal; in Britain, many businesses remain closed and people restricted in their movements.

Last Sunday the Observer newspaper reported that, for the first time, more people preferred Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, as Prime Minister over Boris Johnson. Voters polled chose Starmer at 37 per cent, to 35 per cent for Johnson. Asked about management of the pandemic, the Labour Party had an approval rating 13 points above that of the Conservatives.

The pandemic has hurt the UK economy harder than any other country in Europe. In June, the OECD said that, in 2020, the UK economy would contract by 11.5 per cent from the 2019 level, if it could avoid a second wave of the virus, and 14 per cent if it was hit by a second wave. Unemployment this year will rise to at least nine per cent and more than 10 per cent with a second wave, it said. The Eurozone economy is predicted to shrink 8.7 per cent this year, the highest recession since World War Two.

Because of the pandemic, Britain’s public sector net debt in April rose to 1.9 trillion pounds, 97.7 per cent of national income and the highest burden of debt since 1963-64.

That February morning, the main task facing Johnson for the rest of 2020 was how to reach a trade agreement with the EU by the end of the year. Compared to the complex and angry negotiations needed to leave the bloc, reaching this trade agreement did not seem too difficult.

But the talks are not going well, due in part to the pandemic, which has dominated the time and attention of the government for the last four months. This has left less resources for the negotiations with Brussels.

In four rounds of talks since March, Britain and the EU have struggled to make progress in many core areas, including fishing and so-called level playing field measures that aim to prevent the two sides from undercutting each other via regulatory changes.

This week each attacked the other for blocking progress on another key issue -- access of the City of London to the EU market. Valdis Dombrovskis, a European Commission executive vice-president, said the UK had answered only four of 28 questionnaires sent by Brussels seeking information about British regulation of the financial services industry after the Brexit transition period.

Britain insists it will not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020. This means that the negotiations may end with no deal. Such an outcome would especially hurt Britain’s close trading partners, like Ireland and Belgium. Companies within Britain, both domestic and foreign-owned, strongly oppose a no-deal outcome. They say it would badly affect their dealings with European clients, with whom they import and export goods.

The EU members are debating a 750-billion-euro recovery plan being drawn up by the European Union to help the continent recover from the pandemic. They disagree over how the money is to be disbursed, on what conditions and for what purposes.

Since Britain is no longer a member, it cannot apply for any of the money – a fact regretted by many Remainers who wanted their country to remain within the EU.

The best news for Johnson this year was the birth on April 29 of a boy by his girlfriend Carrie Symonds. The baby is her first child and his sixth. Apart from this bundle of joy, he has little to look forward for the second half of the year – managing the pandemic and the colossal debt and high unemployment it has created and more gruelling negotiations with Brussels.

A second wave and a sharp rise in the virus death toll could even bring a premature end to his Premiership. This is an outcome that looks remote -- but is not impossible.

How he wishes to turn the clock back five months to that sunny morning in February.
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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.