Leadership in the Time of Crisis - The UK Difference

Barely four weeks ago, Boris Johnson was riding high. He had “got Brexit done”: the UK had formally left the European Union on 31 January. Almost a year of talks on a trade agreement lay ahead, but Johnson was confident that 11 months would be enough to clinch a satisfactory deal (even if Brussels was less sure). With a huge majority in Parliament, the Prime Minister and his new, young Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, promised an expansionary Budget, a big infrastructure programme, and the end of almost two decades of budgetary belt-tightening. Foreign and defence policy were under a comprehensive review.  Everything was set for a new start.

Now, that agenda is not just in shreds, it is irrelevant. The UK, like most of its immediate European neighbours, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, is at a standstill in most aspects of normal life. Parliament is about to pass emergency legislation that will restrict civil liberties more than at any time since the Second World War - to almost no objection from Opposition MPs or the population at large. The Chancellor’s first Budget was negated 10 days later by measures that effectively nationalise a good part of the UK’s (predominantly free-market) economy. And the negotiations with the EU are on hold. Both chief negotiators - Michel Barnier for the EU and David Frost for the UK - are in quarantine for suspected infection with coronavirus - the illness that has dictated this precipitate, and probably historic, change.  

Despite this being increasingly a global emergency, however, the UK has stood out as different in its response in several ways, and the differences could translate into different consequences when, as everyone hopes, it is over.  

The first concerns the Prime Minister.  Boris Johnson, it is said, had been preparing all his life to become a latter-day Winston Churchill. Well, his Churchill moment has come less than three months after he won his 80-strong majority and the considerable freedom of manoeuvre that brought. But it is a very different Churchillian moment from any he might have expected.

He has had to transform himself almost overnight from a bright, breezy and optimistic politician into a serious leader for serious times. He has succeeded more than many would have predicted, but not as much as his critics demand. He has yet to prove whether he can rise to be a national leader of the necessary calibre, however, and the crisis is of an order that would make or break any politician. Despite his conclusive election victory and a parliamentary majority second only to those won by Tony Blair, there is a question mark over how long he might be in power that was not there before.
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The implications for the future of the European Union will also depend on how successful the UK becomes as an independent actor. If the new UK government under Johnson can introduce positive policies promoting evenly spread economic welfare, then this will unquestionably energise the populist Euro-sceptic movement in Europe.
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Second, there is Brexit. In so many ways, Coronavirus has come at the worst possible time for the UK: after it has formally left the EU and many of its organisations and before it has established stable trade relations with either the EU or the United States. Now, it is true that the EU has taken a while to coordinate its response, but this is a time when the UK could have benefited from a seat at the Brussels table, which it no longer has. He is also the least experienced leader currently in power in a major European country - Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Giuseppe Conte and Pedro Sanchez of Spain, have all held their positions for longer than he has - and it shows. Communications are not what they might have been.

Third, Johnson gained credibility at the start of the crisis in the UK, when he gave his first press emergency press conference flanked by the country’s chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer. Both did a good job of setting out the position and answering questions, and Johnson was complimented for deferring to them in public. This helped to raise the public standing of all “experts" in the UK, who had been infuriated when the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, remarked shortly before the EU referendum that he thought the country had “had enough of experts”. Experts are now back in a big way. In most other European countries they never went away.

This, however, appears to have created another problem. The Prime Minister had called in the expert scientists and he was listening to them. But it was not long before the scientists started to disagree. The first point of contention was a decision to allow the UK to function pretty much as usual, while advising only those over 70 and vulnerable people to stay at home. While Italy, France and Spain imposed strict rules on the movement of people and ordered educational establishments and non-essentially businesses to close, the British government decided this was not necessary - at least not yet.

There was an outcry from some sections of the scientific and medical establishment, which pointed to Italy especially, and complained that Johnson was not taking the situation seriously. The earlier scientific argument had appeared to be that the virus should be allowed to spread among the majority  of the less-vulnerable part of the population to create a level of general immunity, while those likely to be most seriously affected were kept out of circulation.
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Within days, however, the advice had changed, and within a week all schools, restaurants, pubs etc had shut, and the Government had promised huge subsidies to private businesses. The conclusion most people drew was that Johnson’s first plan had been mistaken and the Government was now seeing sense. It is not clear, though, that this is what happened.

It may well have been that the pressure for stricter measures from some scientists (and the media and the general public) to follow Italy and France became too great to ignore. Or it may have been that the number of cases in the UK increased much faster than had been estimated, so that the stricter measures were required earlier than had been forecast. Either way, the impression was left of mixed messages and a major policy U-turn - which is not good for any government, still less at a time of a national emergency.

There is unlikely to be any objective assessment of the rights and wrongs of these decisions for a long time: whether, in fact, the UK might have been right in its initial, relatively relaxed policy, or whether the approach eventually followed and favoured by most countries of Continental Europe was right all along and the UK responded too late. Suffice it to say that a debate is already raging in the UK medical establishment and the media, although nothing will be resolved until it is all over.

And fourth there is history. Boris Johnson began, as did other ministers, by invoking the “Blitz spirit” - the legendary stoicism and solidarity that Britons supposedly displayed during German air-raids in the early part of the Second World War. This also gave the Government a measure of freedom to respond differently to the emergency from other European countries. The trouble with this is that in this emergency, British people have shown themselves to be quite similar to everyone else.

Despite a deserved reputation for national resilience - as seen in the response to successive terrorist attacks - people have been as quick to alarm in the UK as anywhere else, perhaps even more so. There was popular, as well as scientific, demand for stricter, more Italian-style, precautions, and the level of panic-buying has been far greater than across the Channel. Supposedly compliant Britons have also tended to disregard advice at least as much as the Italians or French. People flocked to the parks at the weekend, despite instructions not to gather in groups.

As for how the UK will look when it is all over, it is far too early to say, but some of the questions are clear. Will Boris Johnson realise his Churchillian ambitions; will he emerge stronger, or weaker? Will the UK turn more inwards, or look more outwards? Will it forsake an economic model that leaned more to the free market, regardless of the party in charge, than most of its European counterparts? And, finally, will it end up looking less, or perhaps more, like Continental European countries in terms of its social welfare system, even as it has left the EU?
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