Daniel Hannan: Don’t write off Johnson just yet

22 Dec

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Here is a thought that, in the current climate, might seem almost recklessly counter-intuitive. Boris Johnson is doing a good job – better, in the circumstances, than his rivals would be doing. I don’t just mean that he is less bad than Keir Starmer or Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May. I mean that he is playing an almost impossible hand as well as could realistically be hoped.

I advance that proposition as a fiscal conservative and a lockdown sceptic. ConHome readers will be familiar with my frequent screeds against this government’s prodigality and illiberalism. But it is not enough to argue that the PM is spending too much or that the lockdowns have been too harsh. You have to show me someone who, given the present national mood, would be doing better.

Let’s deal, in order, with the three main charges against Johnson: that his administration is at best careless and at worst sleazy; that he was too ready to close the country down; and that, more generally, he has been absorbed by the Blob that he was supposed to extirpate.

Is Johnson really being undone by cheese and wine? No. What newspapers call “sleaze” is almost always a symptom rather than a cause of a government’s unpopularity. Just as the original “Tory sleaze” scandals in 1993 reflected rage over the ERM fiasco, and just as the 2009 MPs’ expenses revelations followed the financial crisis, so the current furores about parliamentary standards and illicit gatherings in Downing Street and flat redecorations are a chiefly a sign that the benefit of the doubt has been lost.

Six months ago, Johnson could painlessly have replaced the parliamentary standards commissioner on grounds that she seemed to have a penchant for going after Eurosceptics and that, in any case, the processes themselves were flawed.

Likewise, he could have advanced a perfectly credible defence of the (alleged) get-togethers in Downing Street. He might have pointed out, for example, that a glass of wine after a day in a shared office is hardly a party. He could have brandished the image of himself conducting a quiz at his computer as clear evidence that he was following the rules (how bizarre, and yet how telling, that it should be seen as somehow dodgy). He could have argued that, if sleaze means using public office for private gain, then using private money to do up a state-owned flat is ezaels – the precise opposite of sleaze.

If this were really about alleged corruption, the PM would have little to worry about. Voters sense that he is the least venal of men. His manner, his car, his suits – all tell the same story, namely that this is a bloke with no interest in owning valuable things. Yes, voters might see him as shambolic, light on detail, reluctant to moralise. But these attributes were priced in before the 2019 election.

In his short book on Winston Churchill, Johnson lists that great man’s various cock-ups – Gallipoli, the Gold Standard, backing Edward VIII during the abdication crisis – and notes that none of them ruled him out of contention. Why? Because, however chaotic or over-exuberant he could appear, no one ever accused him of lining his pockets. As for the subject, so for his biographer.

If not sleaze, then, what? The obvious answer, for many, is the lockdown. A man who used to write wonderful Telegraph columns about liberty, and whose editorial line at The Spectator was solidly anti-nanny state, has confined us in our homes, closed businesses and seen a massive commensurate increase in spending.

All true, alas. But – and I write as someone who spoke and voted against Plan B in Parliament last week – who would have done better? Even with the Plan B restrictions, Britain is more open than almost any other country. Why? Because Johnson ignored the doom-mongers and unbolted on July 19.

It is worth recalling how much criticism he got at the time. It was “dangerous” and “unethical” according to 122 scientists who signed an anti-Johnson letter in The Lancet, “reckless” according to Starmer, who feebly tried to get #JohnsonVariant trending. Yet infections, hospitalisations and fatalities fell – to the almost literal disbelief of commentators who, for a while, reported the opposite.

Nor was it just commentators who expected the worst. Modellers at Warwick University forecast at least 1,000 deaths a day (in the event, the highest daily toll was 188). SAGE told us that daily hospital admissions would be between 2,000 and 7,000 (the highest daily total was 1,086). Neil Ferguson predicted 100,000 infections a day (they peaked at 56,688).

Now tell me, my fellow lockdown-sceptics, how many other politicians would have resisted that pressure? How many would have done the same on Monday, in the face of an almost hysterical media campaign for a new lockdown?

Again and again, Johnson emerges as a level-headed optimist. Those leaked Cummings WhatsApp messages, intended to put him in a bad light, in fact show him doing precisely what he should be doing, namely taking a stand for liberty and demanding overwhelming evidence before he shifts his ground.

What, though, of the third complaint, the one that I suspect most animates ConHome readers, namely that Johnson has squandered an 80-seat majority and that, all in all, we might as well have had Starmer?

Oh, come off it. Would Starmer have delivered Brexit? Would he have signed free trade agreements with 70 countries? Would he be privatising Channel 4 and appointing a non-socialist to run the BBC? Would he keep our statues standing or stiffen criminal sentences?

Would he be legislating to stop travellers trespassing on private land? Or to return failed asylum seekers without endless vexatious appeals? Would he have opted out of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme? Would he be creating freeports? Would he beef up our defences or pursue AUKUS – a deal he has actually condemned as warmongering?

Let’s put the question another way. Who is enjoying the PM’s discomfort? Labour and the Lib Dems, obviously. But also the European Commission, Emmanuel Macron, Rejoiners, woke academics – everyone, in short, who wants to see Brexit Britain fail.

As a free-market conservative, I am in despair about a lot things right now. The debt level, the retreat into protectionism, the demand for the smack of firm government. But these things are consequences of the pandemic. If you want to blame someone, blame whoever caused the original Wuhan outbreak. The idea that Johnson, of all people, is getting an authoritarian kick out of our misery is too silly for words. We are pretty much the freest country in Europe. Merry Christmas!

Ben Roback: The ‘defund the police’ movement is a gift to Republican strategists – as Americans increasingly fear crime

15 Dec

Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.

American politics has been shaped by a minor handful of major events in recent years. Few predicted the transformative effect Donald Trump could have on the Republican Party, which now sits almost entirely in the palm of his hand.

No one could have knowingly predicted the outbreak of an obscure virus in Wuhan province that would lead to over five million deaths worldwide, leaving economies ravaged in its wake. But just like death and taxes are life’s two great known outcomes, crime remains a constant political problem that won’t go away. Is Joe Biden losing his grip on such a fundamental issue?

Keeping the nation safe is the first function of government. Fail on crime, fail to get re-elected. On that basis, public attitudes to crime in the United States are alarming. Consider the numbers revealed in the polling undertaken by Morning Consult in July of this year:

  • A staggering 78 per cent of voters said they believe violent crime is a “major problem” in the US;
  • 73 per cent said crime is increasing;
  • 52 per cent identified “too many guns on our streets” as a “major reason” that violent crime is increasing in the US; and
  • 49 per cent blamed police defunding for the crime surge.

Logic dictates that tackling and reducing crime should be a political priority from the White House to Congress, all the way down to state legislatures and town councils. The president is understandably spinning infinite plans – Covid, climate change, managing his own party to name three of the most time-consuming – and few could blame him for struggling to find time to fight crime. At the local level, that excuse does not wash. With such a stark backdrop, how can it be that Democrats still flirt with the idea of taking money away from police departments?

Is “defund the police” a vote winner or loser?

Progressive Democrats have for years been leading campaigns to “defund the police” in towns and cities across the US. This is not informed by any clear partisan divide over attitudes to crime. Republican voters (79 per cent) and Democrats (68 per cent) both overwhelmingly agree that crime is increasing.

“Defund the police” became turbocharged by the “Black Lives Matter” movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by an on-duty police officer. Since then, it has become an integral part of the American political vocabulary. Before that, it was largely the preserve of small, devoutly Democratic local jurisdictions overwhelmingly stacked with progressives in positions of power.

The left of the Democratic Party has been working hard to turn a slogan into meaningful policy. In the pursuit of defunding the police, more than 20 cities have reduced their police budgets in some form, diverting cash to fund the ‘solution’ and not the ‘problem’. Local government in Austin, Texas, passed a major cut to the city’s law enforcement budget and is now reallocating that funding to housing programmes. The city used to spend 40 per cent of its $1.1 billion general fund on law enforcement, whereas that figure is now just 26 per cent.

Calls to defund the police present two major headaches for any incumbent Democratic president.

First, it creates a fight with the unions that no Democrat wants to have. Not least Biden, a self-described “union guy”. Protecting their members jobs and to a greater extent their own existence, police unions have consistently opposed any reforms that might reduce the number of officers keeping the peace.

Some have pursued a middle ground in which they recognise the need for reform, but instead pursue more police with new training programmes and standards for community engagement – especially in the communities of colour which have historically so often felt the brunt of police misconduct in the US. Whether reform is a pill that police departments are willing to slow, even if it helps stave off huge reductions in their budgets and number, the very debate around defunding the police is reported as a major hammer blow to morale in the communities in which their existence is under threat.

Second, on the campaign trail it becomes manner from heaven for Republicans in any district or state that is anything but deep blue. Police reform is a worthy political priority in cities and states the length and breadth of the US where raging homicide statistics sadly speak for themselves. But for communities less affected and perhaps with a more traditional view of policing – visible, firm, respected – the “defund” campaign sounds like the beginning of the end for law enforcement. It gifts Republican strategists and candidates the chance to warn of police abolitionists and link surging concerns about crime, identified above, with a Democratic Party intent on making crime easier.

Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, lurching the Minnesotan city to the epicentre of the “defund” movement. Seventeen months later, in November of this year, voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to remove the Minneapolis Police Department from the city charter and replaced it with a “public-health oriented” Department of Public Safety. Even some cities that successfully defunded their police departments have begun to distance themselves from the slogan.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in Oakland, San Francisco, where city council members once supportive of aggressive reform have shifted to terms like “reimagining” and “reinvesting” when speaking of their approach to policing and public safety. “Defund” has turned off voters that were tempted by police reform but turned off by the prospect of chaos in un-patrolled streets.

President Biden is experienced enough to know a political problem speeding towards him. As the national murder rates rises, just over one in three Americans (36 per cent) approve of his handling of crime, down from 43 per cent in an ABC News/Ipsos poll in late October. His approval ratings on crime are tumbling just at the time when Americans are growing ever more concerned about it.

Ben Roback: The Wuhan lab-leak theory. Does the world owe Trump an apology?

2 Jun

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

After courting President Xi over golf and dessert, Donald Trump made being a China hawk an accepted norm of his presidency. You can watch three minutes of Trump saying “China” in idiosyncratically Trumpian fashion on YouTube, with clips that long pre-date his time in the White House. For Trump the businessman, China was an opportunity. As a politician it became more of a threat.

It was therefore no surprise when Trump identified China as a scapegoat and began to blame the source of the Covid-19 outbreak on the Chinese state.

The theory goes that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China. It deserves investigation and should not be dismissed out of hand. A previously undisclosed US intelligence report revealed that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.

The next month, cases of pneumonia were detected in Wuhan and first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In January, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced the first death caused by the “novel coronavirus”. One of the final acts of the Trump administration in January was to release a State Department fact sheet on “Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology“. It was ultimately inconclusive in its recommendation:

The US government does not know exactly where, when, or how the Covid-19 virus – known as SARS-CoV-2 – was transmitted initially to humans. We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Instead, it called heavily on the need for a true and thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak – something the Chinese state continues to block with full force, proving the desperate lack of power held within the WHO.

A Trump theory goes mainstream

Most things Trump said during his presidency became intensely politicised and an immediate anathema to Democrats and never-Trump Republicans. If the president said it, it was unconscionable for a Sen. Mitt Romney or Sen. Chuck Schumer. Could that change?

“In recent months, our nation and the world has been hit by the once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe,” Trump said at his speech accepting the GOP nomination in August 2020.

The Wuhan lab theory was seized on by Trump allies and acolytes on political talk shows. The “China virus” effectively became a Republican talking point (and with it, anti-Asian discrimination rose in the United States). That took the non-political, science-led impetus away from the theory.

Democrats and the functions of the US Government are coming round to the idea. Closer to home, in an interview with Canadian news, even Boris Johnson said he had an “open mind” about the origin of the virus.

Joe Biden would do well to differentiate between Trump’s – plausible but hitherto unproven – claim that Covid-19 was an intentional weapon distributed by the Chinese government.

One step back from that position, there is a clear and pressing need for a thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak to take place. The Chinese government, for all its smoke and mirrors, should not be allowed to eternally defy the United Nations and World Health Organization. It makes a mockery of global institutions like the UN and WHO if they cannot dilute disagreements in international relations and investigate matters of global significance like this.

The signs are beginning to emerge that the Biden presidency is taking the Wuhan theory seriously. Last week, President Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19.

A report is expected on the president’s desk within 90 days. We will know in the autumn whether Trump will have been proven right, although his credibility when it comes to intelligence reports was diminished owing to several acts of self-sabotage having chosen to politicise reports and go against the US intelligence community.

This all proves that the Wuhan theory has now moved significantly in US political discourse. It was once a talking point for Republicans and Trump sycophants on Fox News, at CPAC and in the gilded halls of Mar-a-Lago. No Republican ever lost friends or votes blaming the pandemic on China.

A favoured stump speech topic of the likes of Trump, Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton has now found its way firmly into the mainstream. In less than 90 days’ time, Trump could be vindicated. The “full investigation” sought by the US government seems inevitably impossible. Chinese state obstructionism will continue unchallenged. It will place an ongoing strain on US-China relations for years to come.

Sarah Ingham: How so many gym-goers escaped Covid-19 is one of the great mysteries of this virus

22 Jul

Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea & Fulham Conservatives and launched the Gym-Goers’ Covid-19 survey.

On a spectrum of illness that runs from a mild cold to the Black Death, many of us have put Covid-19 at the fatal end of the range.

This is unsurprising. The initial images of the illness would not have been out of place in a disaster movie. People apparently lying dead in the eerily empty streets of Wuhan; the intubated patients in Italian intensive care units reminiscent of autopsy scenes, and the teams in hazmat suits.

That this particular Coronavirus may have been cooked up in a biological warfare lab in China has added to the apocalyptic nature of the threat. With the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion suddenly more like fact than fiction, many didn’t wait for the Government officially to order the lockdown on March 23.

By the second week of March they were already shielding themselves and their families. Children were pulled out of schools, essentials were stockpiled and events cancelled. The Government might have been following the science, but the great British public followed its gut instinct and stayed at home. It looked wise in the light of the prediction of 500,000 deaths, which it later transpired was instrumental in locking down the country.

Death at Teatime sounds like a cosy Agatha Christie mystery, but is in fact what the daily Downing Street press briefings became. This statistical ritual, with its rising death toll – first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in tens of thousands – reinforced initial impressions about the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19.

When gyms and fitness studios reopen on Saturday, four long months will have passed since the lockdown was introduced. And it is surely in the context of the indoor sports sector that we can start questioning our current assumptions about Covid-19 and whether State-induced mortal fear promulgated by Government ministers is justified.

Among the mysteries surrounding Covid-19 – including when it actually arrived in Britain – is how any of the country’s gyms-goers and fitness studio fiends escaped it before the Government imposed the Lockdown.

Anyone who was a regular in one of Britain’s gyms, studios or indoor sports centres before their closure in March can testify that most were hardly operating-theatre sterile, particularly in city centres where space is at a premium.

Machines or mats crammed together, shared equipment, crowded changing rooms… Many working out got up close and personal with the heavy breathing and sweat of their fellow fitness fans whether they wanted to or not, in environments which were often strangers to anti-viral wipes.

Hot yoga fans relished classes in fetid, rammed studios heated to close to 100 degrees. Covid-19 was supposed to be dangerously infectious, justifying the emergency Coronavirus Act of March 25, which enabled the police, immigration and public health officials to detain “potentially infectious persons”.

Civil libertarians across the political spectrum have expressed concerns about the Act: the Institute for Economic Affairs states it imposes the “greatest restrictions on liberty in modern British history” while Liberty says it “strips away our civil liberties”. The enforced closure of gyms and studios follows a record-breaking year.

The 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report by Leisure DB highlights that total UK membership broke the 10 million mark, with one in seven of us now members of a gym, while the number of fitness centres reached an all-time high. The industry is worth more than £5 billion a year.

Regulars to gyms, as well as yoga and pilates studios, are now getting updates about the measures that will be in place ahead of Saturday’s reopening. These might include screens around machines such as cross-trainers, fewer people in classes and more cleaning, making them very different places compared with the pre-lockdown era.

Whether regulars will return to their pre-Covid fitness regimes is the question that must be haunting the industry. With predictions about working from home, is working out at home also going to become the new normal?

And just as privately-owned centres might be soon feeling the financial burn, public fitness facilities, many funded by local authorities, are facing an uncertain future: reports last week from ukactive suggested that Britain is “sleep walking” towards losing many of them.

Like restaurants and cinemas, gyms can create a safe, socially-distanced environment, but it is not automatic that punters will have the confidence to return to them. Since March, the Government’s Project Coronavirus Fear has been relentless, putting Covid-19 at the Black Death end of the illness scale, bolstered by a media which has delighted in drinking the Corona apocalypse Kool-Aid.

But if Covid-19 were lethal and infectious enough to justify a four-month lockdown that was only supposed to last three weeks, then surely our indoor gyms and fitness studios would have been the places to find high rates of transmission?

Although the numbers dropped throughout the month, one boss of a leading high-end gym chain estimates there were at least 20 million gym visits in March, as peak virus was being reached.

Wouldn’t a London-based yoga teacher who was teaching 350 students a week have caught it, along with her colleagues and students?

She didn’t; they didn’t: why not?

Perhaps, as Roosevelt once suggested, most of us have nothing to fear but fear itself.