Boris Johnson faces another date with destiny. In a few months, the poor man has already seen off Jeremy Corbyn, the EU and its massed ranks of domestic fifth columnists, and a brush with death at the hands of the mercurial coronavirus. By this weekend, he has to find a find a way of unlocking the lockdown. But then comes the most dangerous of months – June.
Little appreciated yet because the country has been understandably obsessed with social distancing, face masks and ventilators, next month is a major milestone along the road to Britain’s supposed final break with the EU at the close of the year. By the end of June, the British Government has to decide whether it will seek an extension to the so-called transition period (TP) in which it is legally outside the EU but has to follow all its rules and regulations – and pay its bills. All that, of course, without having any say over its decisions.
The Government, via ministers, Downing Street and its chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, has been adamant that there will be no extension of the TP beyond the end of this year, a stipulation set in statute that would need a change in the law in the next 7 weeks to overturn. With Parliament reduced to virtual gatherings, practicality alone points to only one outcome: that Britain’s 47-year troubled membership of the EU will be finally over at the end of 2020.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shifted the terms of the debate with Remainers, who seemed to have sunk without trace after the Conservatives stunning election victory in December, spotting a lifeline. They are pointing to opinion polls suggesting that a petrified British public strongly backs an extension of the TP because ministers first, indeed only priority, should be to curb the virus, which has cost nearly 30,000 UK lives and brought the economy to a shuddering halt. Covid-19 is being weaponised in the battle to come over an extension for as long as two years – which would amount to effective continuation of UK membership of the EU.
People should recall the great American economist Milton Friedman who used to say that “nothing was so permanent as a temporary government programme”. Among other things, Friedman was referring to income tax, a short-term expedient brought in over 200 years ago to assist in the struggle against Napoleon.
Naomi Smith, chief executive of the well funded and increasingly assertive pro-EU campaign Best for Britain, was in no doubt that Mr Johnson could not do two things at once: “Given the huge amount of harm being done by the virus to the economy and the country’s health, most people will be wondering why the Government is splitting its focus to conduct Brexit talks.
“Right now there is no bigger priority than coronavirus, and nothing should be distracting the government’s attention. “That is particularly the case for these talks, which can be extended to give both the UK and the EU room for manoeuvre.”
Of course, what Ms Smith really means that there is no bigger priority than derailing Brexit at the eleventh hour and that the pandemic provides wonderful covering fire for ignoring the referendum and election results and shoving Brexit back in its box for years to come. Once prominent Remainers are also stirring in the woodwork.
Sir David Lidington, formerly Theresa May’s deputy prime minister, has said that there is not enough “bandwidth” in Whitehall to thrash out a trade deal with Brussels while also dealing with the health emergency. He thinks it “inevitable” that the UK would have to try to shift the 31 December expiry date.
Even Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s former chief of staff and pro-Brexit former MP, Nick de Bois, has backed an extension.
Straws in the wind? Nicola Sturgeon and her tartan army are also rallying to the “Delayer” flag . The great puffed up Remainer elite, egged on by a BBC still smarting from its referendum defeat and its failure to identify any of the major political undercurrents of recent years, will soon be strapping on their designer boots.
Boris has got a fight on his hands. By June the virus will still be starkly in the headlines as the country seeks to marry an economic recovery with a health one. Lockdowns are easier to impose than relax and there will be endless wrangling over the scope and speed of the measures needed to get British business out of its induced coma.
Will the Prime Minister and his second eleven Cabinet have the guts to confront a windy public and a resurgent Remainer force, all posing as guardians of the sacred NHS, a sort of Committee of Public Safety? Downing Street is notoriously sensitive to focus groups and polling. What if the Red Wall seats central to the Government’s survival think that Brexit can wait for another day?
The betting has to be that Boris and Co will hold their nerve. There would be hell to pay in the Parliamentary Conservative Party if there was even a whiff of surrender. But then Covid-19 is a mysterious business.