Anyone with nothing better to do in lockdown than browse the Gov.UK website will find truncated biographies of the members of the current UK cabinet listed under ‘Ministers’. No length of lockdown could possibly end up being boring enough to induce me to do something so self-lacerating without some good reason. In this instance I was interested in finding out precisely which Higher Education establishments we can hold responsible. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that almost 50% of them went to either Oxford or Cambridge, while a further 20% or thereabouts went to one of the other Russell Group universities. Interestingly, many of those who didn’t illuminate the rarefied cloisters of those supposedly ‘top’ universities appear to be sufficiently ashamed of the fact to avoid any mention at all of their education in their potted biographies. Although recent political developments in both England and USA raise serious questions about universal ‘education’ in general, and precisely what steadily expanding Higher Education is supposed to have done for national analytical capability, in particular, our cabinet cannot all be as stupid, or even as incompetent, as they seem. There has to be a cunning plan. If lockdown allows time to read Ministerial biographies, it must also allow time for speculation.
It was obvious from their reactions that the leaders of the Leave campaign, Johnson and Farage in particular, did not expect to win the referendum in 2016, in spite of the populist lies their Little Englander campaign was built on. Johnson and company also knew by mid-2019 that the majority of the electorate did not support Brexit, in fact never had, and successfully managed to evade the dreaded second referendum. The government’s own advisers were indicating that any form of Brexit was going to be economically damaging, and the much-derided independent ‘experts’ were almost all saying the same. This meant that the puppeteers in the cabinet knew they would not be able to blame a credible cohort of specialist economists for the financial fall-out from Brexit, in the way they are all too obviously going to try to evade responsibility for the deadly fall-out from Covid-19 by bleating over and over again that they were just ‘following the science’.
Who, then, is there to blame? The obvious answer is the EU. But that only really works provided you don’t enter into serious negotiations or accept any compromises. The EU has to be so blameworthy that you are morally obliged to walk away from the table without any deal. So you have to reject any extension of the transition period, and you know that Dominic Cummings can be relied on to invent a narrative that will sound plausible to your core support. You need to do this by January 1st 2021 because the Covid-19 virus, bless it, has ensured that, no matter how much additional economic damage a no-deal Brexit will result in in the long term, 2021 can only be better for the economy than 2020. If you delay departure for an extra year while you pretend to negotiate a deal, the specific damage occasioned by Brexit, as distinct from Covid-19, might become too obvious.
In the meantime the cunning plan will work even better if 2020 can be made even more memorably awful. People have short memories and by the time, in our version of democracy, they get to vote again four and a half years hence, they will have forgotten just how much responsibility you bear for the awfulness. So impose a two-week quarantine on people coming into the UK from less infected countries to put extreme financial pressure on airlines, and ensure tens of thousands of redundancies, just before you agree to institute air “corridors” or “bridges” which might have helped to avoid such redundancies. Watch news coverage of shop managers, restaurant and pub owners, and numerous others spending tens of thousands of pounds and hours of work preparing their premises to open in July on the assumption that two-metre social distancing will be compulsory, and then make them do it all again by changing your mind at the last minute, against scientific advice, and saying that one metre will be fine after all. Make sure you avoid consulting with leaders in the different sectors, and especially with the unions, before taking decisions in crucial areas, such as sending children back to school, before you change your mind about that too. It is all grist to the mill of making 2020 so bad that even a no deal Brexit has to seem like an improvement.
Alas, however, most conspiracy theories have a fatal flaw. This cunning plan requires January 1st 2021, the Brexiteers true ‘Independence Day’, to mark the beginning of the post-Covid post-EU era, and depends on its authors betting the house on there not being a second spike of the virus. If that is what the whole devilishly clever wheeze depends on, you don’t release lockdown too early, against the advice of your scientific advisers, and you don’t allow your Prime Minister’s compulsively bombastic self-display to extend to a grossly premature declaration of a subsidiary lockdown-release ‘Independence Day’ on July 4th which encourages tens of thousands of people to flock to unsocially-distanced beaches and street parties. Perhaps there was no cunning plan after all; perhaps they really are as comprehensively clueless as they seem.