Politics

Merry Christmas: rising Covid cases, no deal Brexit, recession and possibly lockdown

Still, the government remains surprisingly popular – for now

This is the end. Not the actual ending, of course. There is no real ending; just the beginning of another chapter. But as far as Brexit is concerned, this is it: no more can-kicking, no more transition periods, no more rules. Out.

There is little chance that the UK and the EU will reach a trade deal at this late stage. The two sides are still talking, real and quick movements are clearly possible (as the recent practical agreement on Northern Ireland has shown), neither side really wants no deal, and there are mechanisms that could bypass the normally cumbersome ratification process – at least in relation to it on the application of the agreement on January 1st. But don’t expect it.

It is much more likely that we are heading towards no deal. Both sides set this as their expectation and – crucially – it does not look like there is the political will to overcome the remaining blockades.

There’s a reason most EU negotiations get to the heart of the matter and only settle at late-night summits above. Negotiating teams can work within their set parameters, but national governments (or in this case the EU as a whole) will always set these parameters carefully to avoid the risk of their diplomats over-revealing in the interest of an agreement. This time, however, there is no such political intervention. Johnson had rejected his calls to Merkel and Macron and the EU must therefore hold on. And if it does, the Johnson almost certainly will too.

For those activists who have left the UK since leaving the EU, this will be a manna: from across the range of EU structures – a result far more extreme than what was discussed in last year’s elections was spoken, never think about the referendum four and a half years ago. Rejoice in all this sovereignty!

For most people, butter means abstract sovereignty in its raw state, but not many parsnips. The more immediate consequence of No Deal will be felt in shops, price increases and shortages of goods, as well as in congested ports and the surrounding streets. In fact, the main ports in the south of England are already heavily congested as traffic increases and transport costs increase due to the uncertainty of the agreements after the end of the transition period.

And the media are well equipped to cover these stories. Everyone knows when it’s going to happen – if it’s going to happen – and where it is going to happen. Expect multiple film crews in Dover and Felixtowe on New Years Day and for at least a week after, in hopes of picking up trucks that don’t go very far or fast – a task they will be helped with as the New Year is usually slow. News day and it will be even more this year as parties and city celebrations are canceled due to Covid.

With that in mind, the outlook for January looks bleak. Never a particularly happy month at best, 2021 seems a lot worse than normal. Aside from disrupting No Deal, the Covid crisis will almost certainly be back, perhaps worse than the fall, and well past the NHS ‘usual busiest season. Overall, case numbers are rising again (and even turned the corner in England before the lockdown ended in November), although local images are mixed. While the vaccines may win the battle against the virus, the effects are likely to be minimal over the next month: the elderly who are vaccinated are the least likely to spread them (but are, of course, among the most at risk).

The pointlessly late next tiering review will most likely place London in Tier 3 (if the evidence is now, make the decision now). Cases are on the rise across the capital and are already over 400 per week per 100,000 residents in one county, like six counties in north Kent or south Essex, while others are heading in that direction. Whether Tier 3 will stop this surge is another question: in Kent, where case numbers continue to rise in all but one district, this is clearly not the case – and of course there’s the planned Christmas Relaxation anyway, which means it’s effective would be two weeks before a tightening really took off: a schedule that risks a very serious outbreak. Tighter restrictions in London and the South East (and Wales, where the situation is spiraling out of control) could be offset by looser ones in the North, but even if they do and this is not a guarantee – there are still pockets of very high prevalence, this is unlikely to be back to something like it was in the summer. All of this means another great economic success.

How will that affect politics? So far, the government has remained remarkably popular – or, to put it another way, it is surprising that it is not less popular. Covid’s response has been a deadly, contradicting mess, with both deaths and economic blow higher than virtually any comparable country.

Still, the government’s net rating with Survation was -10 today, with 35% cheap and 45% bad, and the Tories roughly match Labor. This is pretty good in all circumstances (any rating above -20 can be considered decent); It’s a remarkable score amid the deepest recession in centuries, a flawed pandemic response, and a Brexit that failed to deliver on its ambitions.

Undoubtedly, much of this is due to the continued support from Leave supporters who voted for Brexit Done, which the government is clearly doing now. Perhaps these people will support it well into January when the realities of fractional trade begin to hit – it is easy (and not entirely unjustified) to blame the EU, which, as always consistently, is covering its hand and ( probably) ended without a workable deal. Whether this is fair is less important here than plausible.

However, it is difficult to say how long this support can be sustained. This is a government with no real guiding vision and no great management skills. With slogans, optimism and assertion, things can only get this far. If Brexit is over, what then? What is the vision Where does the government want to go? People will accept and tolerate difficulties to a certain extent if they accept and understand the reason for it – but no such case has been made for a post-Covid cut. The public doesn’t expect it.

2020 was a terrible year. 2021 should be better – but not immediately; In fact, there is a good chance it will get worse before it improves. Merry Christmas.

David Herdson

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