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Boris Johnson, Covid, Brexit and the art of political improvisation

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has always taken a “seat of the pants” approach to governance. But his reversals this week on the country’s two most pressing issues – the pandemic and Brexit – have been staggering, even by Mr. Johnson’s strict standards of improvisation.

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson, alarmed by the coronavirus resurgence, announced that the UK government would ban gatherings of more than six people after weeks of encouraging people to go back to work, eat in restaurants, patronize pubs and send their children back to school.

Hours earlier, the government had passed legislation on Northern Ireland that would override a landmark Brexit deal that Mr Johnson himself signed with the European Union, passed through parliament, and championed in last year’s elections on the way to a landslide victory .

The government admitted that this unexpected move violates international law, which, according to critics, raises a thorny question: why should people follow Mr Johnson’s new social distancing rules when he is brazenly breaking a legal treaty?

“It’s a crazy style of government without borders,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an expert on Brexit at the Eurasia Group political risk adviser. “You put your foot on the accelerator as hard as you can and rush toward the cliff.”

It was not yet clear whether Mr. Johnson’s brinkmanship with the European Union would crash the ongoing trade negotiations or enable him to get a better deal. European officials called for urgent talks with the UK over the threat of rewriting the parts of the readmission agreement that deal with Northern Ireland. But they haven’t broken off further talks in London for a trade deal.

In both cases, Mr. Johnson’s steps showed a willingness – one that dates back to his time as Mayor of London – to suddenly change course, contradict himself, and stick his nose according to traditional norms in order to achieve his goals. And, as so often in the past, his methods distract many in the UK establishment.

One of his conservative predecessors, John Major, said of the Brexit reversal: “If we lose our reputation for delivering on promises we have made, we have lost something beyond the price that can never be regained.”

Mr. Johnson’s U-turn on lockdown rules was a clearer case in which he bowed to prove the virus was spreading. After a quiet period in June and July, new cases crept in in August. By last Sunday they had risen to nearly 3,000, the highest daily number since May 23.

Health officials said they were concerned that many of the cases occurred in young people, increasing the risk that the UK will be on the same track as France and Spain, where a surge in cases caused the UK to impose travel quarantine on both countries.

The country’s infection rate has increased from 12.5 per 100,000 people in the past week to 19.7 per 100,000, indicating that the “R-number” – a measurement that shows the average number of people each person is using get infected with the virus – has risen above one. a critical threshold.

“It’s a stitch in time to save nine,” said Mr Johnson at a news conference, flanked by his chief medical and scientific advisers. “These measures are not another national lockdown. The whole point is to avoid a new national lockdown. “

Health experts commended Mr Johnson for imposing modest restrictions now rather than risking a larger tip, which would require more draconian measures. However, they said UK policies remained inconsistent. Authorities allowed a crowd to gather for the opening day of the horse races in Doncaster, northern England, on Wednesday, before the rest of the races abruptly closed to spectators.

“The UK government is confused and has to come up with a clear strategy as the current approach will hurt both health and the economy and will further decrease public compliance,” said Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of the global public Health at the University of Edinburgh.

The mixed messages reflect an ongoing tension in Mr. Johnson’s cabinet and party between those concerned about a deadly second wave of infections this fall and winter and those who argue that more lockdowns will slow the economy. Even now, Mr Johnson insisted that schools would stay open and that people should still consider returning to work while it was safe to do so.

Critics also accuse the government of failing to organize an efficient national test-and-trace program after months. Labor leader Keir Starmer confronted Mr Johnson in Parliament on Wednesday with stories from people who were told they had to travel hundreds of miles to get a test.

The government said police would fine £ 100, about $ 130, for anyone who breaks the six-person limit. But Mr Johnson turned down questions on whether he intended to “cancel Christmas”, a phrase that suggests the tough decisions the government will face over the virus this fall and winter.

According to analysts, it was much easier for Mr Johnson to fight the European Union. Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the University of London’s Queen Mary, said that as the language escalated on Brexit, Mr Johnson had reverted to a tried and tested strategy that matters to the die-hard Brexit base in the Conservative Party.

While Mr Johnson’s threat to forego a treaty has outraged commentators and establishment figures such as Mr Major and former Prime Minister Theresa May, the government appears to have calculated that they are causing little setback beyond Westminster political circles becomes.

“You seem to see breaking international law as a Beltway problem rather than something that will bother most people – and you are almost certainly right about that,” said Professor Bale, referring to Washington’s parish policy.

However, antagonizing the European Union four months before the deadline for a trade agreement is not without its risks. Mr Rahman said he now believes there is a greater likelihood that Mr Johnson will not close a deal with Brussels, which will usher in a period of disruption on top of the pandemic.

After Mr Johnson made a pledge in the elections to “do Brexit”, he also takes a risk to prolong the argument as many Britons are simply tired of hearing about it. If scientists’ fears are correct, he could face a far more serious health crisis in January.

“Covid is a much bigger challenge and the political risk of being viewed as incompetent is much greater,” said Professor Bale. “Most voters are far more concerned about Covid, which affects them directly, than they are about the technical aspects of legal interpretations.”

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