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Vaccine breakthrough gives Boris a chance to hit the reset button

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
By
10 November 2020
A

fter a fairly chaotic couple of months, this last week gives Boris Johnson a chance to hit the reset button.

He’s done what he said he would never do and imposed a second lockdown. Covid cases, which were probably trending down anyway, will soon fall sharply.

He’s forced the Chancellor to extend the furlough scheme for many months more. The reckoning with unemployment is again delayed.

For all the problems with testing — and especially tracing — compliance with the mass trial in Liverpool is higher than the Government hoped.  

Meanwhile Downing Street found the good day of the presidential election result to bury the good news that Marcus Rashford has forced another government U-turn.

So Scrooge won’t have a shock of blond hair this year. Then yesterday, just as eyes were turning to their vaccine tsar’s bill for PR consultants, news arrived that a real-life vaccine was apparently on its way.

Okay, so it was those freedom-loving Germans (and immigrants too!) who got there first; but we Brits will get our hands on it soon enough — thanks in part, it seems, to the very tsar who is about to get the bullet from No10.

Being overly optimistic has been one of the global mistakes this year. Let’s be clear that, even if approved, this vaccine does not prevent people catching and spreading Covid; it reduces its severity in nine out of 10 people.

Even if everyone is inoculated, deaths from the disease could still be in the tens of thousands next year here in Britain. That leaves the Government with some difficult decisions about how much it can ease restrictions.

Let’s also remember, as this column warned two months ago, that the decisions about who gets a vaccine and when could be politically very tricky for the Government.

If other countries do a better job at getting their populations inoculated faster, then expect a big row.  

Nevertheless, there is a breathing space in which to relaunch the Prime Minister’s appeal to the nation: there’s still a hard, long road ahead with this disease, but there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

Boris Johnson would do well to prepare the country for the tough economic journey that also lies ahead. No amount of boosterism can make good for the fact that Covid has made us a lot poorer. 

Talk of cyber skills and green bonds will not ease the dislocation of the shift towards a digital economy that this virus has accelerated.  

It’s amusing to see how enthusiastic Brexiteers are about a campaign that lost with 48 per cent of the vote

Phoney claims about the benefits of trade deals (versus no deal at all) can’t conceal from British business the facts that Brexit has caused global currency markets to revalue our economy down.  

The under-performance of the last four years now looks like the structural downgrade that many warned about. 

The Prime Minister should prepare Britain for some tough, austere years ahead. But, learning from the fight against the disease, he can explain that the sooner the tough decisions are taken, the quicker we will be through them to those sunlit uplands he craves.  

The events of this last week also represent a chance for Boris Johnson to shift the political ground he occupies.

Covid may have put pay to the political honeymoon; but it was the dispatch of Jeremy Corbyn that has ended the forced marriage between Conservative nationalists and an electorate that had no credible alternative.  

The results of the US election remind us what happens when there is a credible alternative to those in power. It amuses me to see how enthusiastic the Brexiteer crowd are about a campaign that lost with 48 per cent of the vote.  

They take heart that Trump turned out his base and that the Vote Leave/Boris Johnson coalition can repeat the trick here. They crow that their anti-hero won more votes than any presidential candidate in history, bar only one. They overlook this inconvenient fact: the “bar one” was Joe Biden.  

When the votes are finally all in, it looks like he will be the one on 52 per cent of the vote, beating an incumbent full-term president for only the third time in my life.  

Now we see what happens when a safe, mainstream, somewhat boring candidate of the centre-Left goes against a Right-wing populist who’s carrying the burden of a record in office.

We have the former here in Keir Starmer. Whether we have the latter is up to Boris Johnson.

It’s time for him to morph again, and head for the political centre.

This week, both sides in Britain should pay at least as much attention to the guy entering the White House rather than the one being dragged out of it.