At the time of writing, we have 27,510 corpses – and rising. GDP is 30% down – and falling. We have lost 950,000 jobs – and there are more to go. We are 37% short of full personal protection equipment for doctors. We are runners-up in the race to have the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe and may soon leapfrog the Italians and claim the title outright. In short, we are a country that has been put to the test – and seen its leaders fail.
As they were bound to fail. From the moment Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove won the Brexit referendum in 2016 by promising we could inflict a shuddering change to our country without feeling pain, failure has been inevitable. The only wonder is that it has taken so long for the British charlatan style to die.
It’s dying now as surely as the lost souls in care homes disappearing out of sight and out of mind. I say British rather than English because Alex Salmond’s promises of Scottish independence without tears anticipated Johnson’s promises of a painless Brexit and because British dishonesty takes a distinctive form.
Since 2016, Johnson has been a postmodern populist. His myths have been cheerful, a world away from the menace behind Trump’s snarls. He claimed the impossible was possible with a wink to the camera and a smirk on his face. He believed, or seemed to believe, you could never be sure, that all difficulties could be overcome with a dose of British pluck.
Good government in these circumstances would have been next to impossible. Now the pandemic has hit, it is impossible. Everyone involved in the fatal failure to contain the virus in February and early March is covering their backs. You do not, however, need to stare too hard at Johnson’s belated statement on 21 March that “we’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub” to know that the ideology of the Brexiters is out of time. Johnson did not act until the pandemic had engulfed us because his puffed-up nationalism held that the Brits, so favoured by providence, would refuse to imitate the cowed continentals. We stood alone in 1940. We stood up for ourselves in the Brexit referendum. Why couldn’t we stand at the bar now?
Johnson believed, or seemed to believe, that all difficulties could be overcome with a dose of British pluck
Behavioural “science”, a dubious discipline, since human behaviour does not follow paths as predictable as Newtonian physics, provided a pseudo-intellectual veneer to cover nationalist self-regard. Ministers and their scientific advisers tarried because they thought freeborn Britons would tire of the lockdown. “There is a risk if we go too early people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain,” said Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, on 9 March . In fact, the British were locking themselves down days before the government finally accepted the realities of the pandemic. We did so because one aspect of human behaviour remains predictable: we don’t want to die. Far from suffering from lockdown fatigue, every survey shows that an alarmed public is not straining to “get back to normal”.
Invocations of the wartime spirit, so characteristic of Brexiters who have never fought a war, led to the dallying with the possibility of “herd immunity”. Britain could take the Blitz, so it could take the virus. Meanwhile, the love of simplistic slogans and over-promising so characteristic of the Brexit movement has been displayed to the point of tedium.
Yet the practicalities best explain why, in the words Professor Chris Grey, one of the best chroniclers of our decline, a Brexit movement “impervious to reason and incapable of engaging with complexity” has reached its terminus. Millions of Britons must have gazed on the cabinet and thought, “really, Tories, is that your best shot?” They should remember that Johnson destroyed the careers of Alistair Burt, David Gauke, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey and many another Conservative with ministerial experience because they wouldn’t inflict a no-Brexit on Britain.
He sent others to the backbenches. Jeremy Hunt, for example, was health secretary for six years and you can wonder why he isn’t helping out now. Then you remember he challenged Johnson for the Tory leadership and so had to be punished. I am not asking you to like the Conservative politicians Johnson pushed aside, only to accept that the emergency demands the services of ministers who know how government works. Instead, we have a dilettante PM, a cabinet of nobodies and a civil service policed by Vote Leave propagandists, who can fool the country in a referendum but have no idea how to manage it in a crisis. An administration of all the sycophants rather than all the talents.
Its time has gone. I am not saying we are about to enter a better age of competent government. Hard times are rarely good times for the centre left and it looks as if we are heading into the hardest of times. Angry people cling to what they have in a slump. They blame foreigners and turn to shop-soiled saviours. Who knows, after populism with a smirk on its face could come populism with the authentic snarl. What’s over is the glib, deceitful spirit of 2016 with its false promise that bills need never be paid. The Brexit right has attempted a final rally. It dismissed warnings about public health as “over the top” just as it dismissed warnings about Brexit as “Project Fear” and assured us that “German carmakers” or some other knight on a shining unicorn would make everything all right.
But the exhausted Johnson has stopped listening to his old allies. Even he knows that Britain will pay for being one of the last European countries to go into lockdown by being among the last to leave. There are many reasons why yesterday’s retailers of counterfeit optimism have become today’s frightened pessimists. To be precise, 27,510 reasons – and rising.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist