Scottish contact tracers at the ready – England’s King of Covid is crossing the border!
Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, but on Covid-19 health matters he has largely settled for governing England; badly. As restrictions ease, Boris now wants to take back control of the whole of the UK, and is embarking on his first pandemic-era tour of the outer reaches of his lands. He has “pledged to be a prime minister for every corner of the United Kingdom”. How reassuring.
Did you know, for example, that troops – British troops – had done “vital work” to support the NHS during the crisis? And of course there’s all Rishi Sunak’s British pounds which saved “the jobs of a third of Scotland’s entire workforce and kept the wolves at bay for tens of thousands of Scottish businesses”. That, he said, was the “sheer might of our union”.
“More than ever, this shows what we can achieve when we stand together, as one United Kingdom.”
It is a predictable pitch from the Prime Minister, and not one without political force, but it does contain an equally obvious flaw. When Sunak pulls the furlough plug at the end of October, and Scottish unemployment starts to surge, hitching the union to a short-term financial support package may not look so clever. The furlough will go from political strength to weakness, with the blame laid at the Prime Minister’s feet.
Indeed, there is good reason to believe that now is the calm before the storm as far as the health and economic crisis in the UK is concerned. Johnson has ordered the army to plan for a quadruple winter crisis this year: a second Covid-19 spike, a strong winter flu season, no trade deal with the EU, and widespread flooding. So those troops are going to be busy. He could maybe add to that list the potential for civil unrest if furlough ends, with Clare McNeil from IPPR finding that it “is becoming clearer by the day that the winding down of the furlough scheme this autumn will be a catastrophic mistake if no additional action is taken”. Economist Richard Murphy has argued that “the anger that [the end of furlough] will give rise to will be long and sustained.”
“Unless the government acts now – and there’s no sign that it thinks it needs to do anything more than offer £10 off at Pizza Express – then we’re going to be heading for a winter of discontent like no other we have ever seen,” he adds.
Disaster is not necessarily bad for Johnson politically. It provides opportunities to stoke fears and turn people against one another, something Tories excel in. The independence issue is a problem for Johnson, but it’s also a potential weapon in the government’s hands to be exploited, as David Cameron worked out before the 2015 UK General Election (remember mini Ed Miliband in Salmond’s pocket?). If we are heading for a multi-pronged winter meltdown, the “sheer might” of the UK in Scotland could mean something very different in six months time to what it does today.
If you are a young person and concerned about spending your first years of adulthood on the scrap-heap, don’t worry – uncle Boris may have a job for you. In the army.
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