London: It’s already looking like it will be a long, hard winter for Britain’s troubled leadership.
Coronavirus cases hit a daily record again on Friday, a day after the U.K. finance minister effectively gave up saving hundreds of thousands of people from unemployment. A rebellion is brewing within the ruling Conservative Party over new restrictions, which many businesses say will cripple them. A trade deal with the European Union to avoid more chaos is at risk before talks resume next week.
As the pandemic rages and countries across Europe try to respond without crippling their economies, leaders in Spain and France are also feeling the pressure. But for Prime Minister Boris Johnson crisis is looking more like a permanent state. Few governments face so many challenges on so many fronts.
The sense of foreboding was heightened this week after a U-turn on people returning to offices and curbs on restaurant and pub hours. In August, the government was still subsidizing diners to bolster the hospitality industry, a move some scientists suggested may have contributed to spreading the virus.
Business owners are complaining there’s not enough financial support and are shedding staff, while up and down the country radio phone-ins field confused callers wondering about what they can and can’t do now.
That’s at a time when Britain is struggling to meet demand for Covid-19 testing just as it heads into the winter flu season after recording the most coronavirus deaths of any European country.
The problem, said one senior Conservative member of Parliament, is that things are not working inside the No. 10 Downing Street machine—and Johnson needs to get a grip. The question is whether he will get the country through its predicament given the “doom and gloom” the U.K. faces, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Brexit talks now head into a critical final round of formal discussions. The question increasingly being asked is if and when Johnson will intervene to rescue a deal after his government declared it would break international law by reneging on a part of its Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. The disclosure caused outrage among Brussels officials and provided fodder for Scotland’s nationalists who want another referendum on independence.
The EU has told U.K. negotiators they must accept some of the bloc’s key demands over their future relationship if they want to make progress before an October deadline, according to an official familiar with the discussions.
The government in London said this week 7,000 trucks could end up parked in southeast England in a “reasonable worst case” scenario regardless of whether there’s a deal in place when the transition ends on Dec. 31.
Many companies are now losing hope that a deal will be done and stepping up their contingency planning by stocking up warehouses. In addition, three of Britain’s main supermarkets introduced limits on products like flour and dried pasta on concern people will hoard goods again because of the pandemic.
Disquiet among Conservatives over Brexit and the impact of renewed coronavirus rules on civil liberties has grown as the party heads into its autumn conference starting next weekend.
Charles Walker, vice chairman of an influential committee of the party’s lawmakers, warned the government last week: “If you keep whacking a dog, you shouldn’t be surprised when it bites you back.”
Mixed messaging over key policies has caused deep confusion in the nation, according to James Johnson, who was pollster for former premier Theresa May and is co-founder of polling firm JL Partners. The latest YouGov survey put the Conservatives neck and neck with the opposition Labour Party they trounced in an election a little over nine months ago.
Focus groups reveal frustration among voters that there’s no simple place for them to look up the rules and that restrictions limiting gatherings to six people are not clear, James Johnson said. There are also different measures in different parts of the country depending on the number of cases, while Scotland and Wales have their own policies.
“I think Boris is in trouble with a lot of these voters,” he said. “Anyone can turn these things around, a politician always has an opportunity to reset the message, but it’s hard to see how his numbers don’t continue to fall rather than rise.” He added that leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel had remained popular during the pandemic.
Over the summer, the signals from government were clear: office workers should start going back to their workplaces to help out the many businesses that relied on their custom. Now people are being urged to work from home if they can—with huge implications for restaurants, cafes and shops in city centers. The government on Friday added London to its watch list of potential pandemic hot spots.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on Thursday announced a plan to subsidize wages for the next six months, though the furlough program that may have saved millions of jobs in the early days of the pandemic is being phased out. Goldman Sachs economists reckon the decision could tip an additional 2.2 million into unemployment.
Kumar Pillai, owner of an Indian restaurant in central London, said he “can’t see light at the end of the tunnel” and has had to make several employees redundant. “I don’t agree with the work-from-home order,” he said. “It’s putting off people from coming in. It removes confidence in the government when they’re saying contradictory messages. We’re all unsure.” – Bloomberg