Chris Johns: We’re in for a triple whammy of Covid, Brexit and the US elections
The next few months will see great change as the real economic fallout becomes apparent
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson attends a service marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain at Westminster Abbey in London on Sunday. Photograph: Aaron Chown/AFP via Getty Images
One of Lenin’s more famous, if not apposite, aphorisms observes that while nothing much can happen for decades, “there are weeks when decades happen”. At the risk of breaking my own rule about never making a forecast, the next few months are shaping up to remind us of the force of Lenin’s words.
Lenin was acutely aware of the power of language, the importance of clear, consistent communication. The old Bolshevik would chuckle – or perhaps despair – at the absence of those qualities in the handling of the Covid crisis on both sides of the Irish Sea. Added to the mixed, often contradictory, messaging is an obvious determination to never label a lockdown a lockdown. The paradox is that the authorities clearly recognise the importance of words but regularly fail to find the right ones or to put them in the right order.
It’s a golden age for meaningless slogans, for the abuse of language. The vocabulary of Brexit is these days most often described as Orwellian. Cliches abound; we only hear what we want to hear.
Johnson now knows (finally) that there has to be a border down the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland
At the start of the whole wretched Brexit process it was pointed out, loudly, that there were two fundamental truths. First, Britain would be worse off as a result of leaving – the only question is just how bad would be the economic hit. Second, leaving the EU’s single market and customs union means a border somewhere – the only question is where. It’s been fascinating to observe pundits and politicians gradually discovering these truths for themselves. And sometimes to claim credit for their discoveries.
Boris Johnson now knows (finally) that there has to be a border down the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland. The latest nonsense out of Westminster is him merely trying to get the EU to make the decision and, therefore, to get the blame for it. He also knows that an economic hit from Brexit is about to be added to the costs of coronavirus.
What I don’t know is whether he is deluded enough to believe that those costs can safely be hidden behind those of the virus. His only strategy, as usual, is to abuse the language: the harder the Brexit the greater the benefits, apparently. As Lenin also said, a lie told often enough becomes the truth.
Johnson is a truth hiding in plain sight: ex-colleagues, bosses, and friends told us, often in excoriating terms, about his true nature. The surprise now being expressed in many quarters about Johnson speaks volumes about our selective deafness.
Johnson did say something both accurate and true this week. For that we should be grateful. He said that a second lockdown would be economically disastrous. Unusually for him, he was putting things mildly. Firms and businesses barely hanging on by their fingernails will be driven into abrupt bankruptcy by any repeat of what we went through in April or March.
Covid-19 has revealed many things, not least that while we are good at linguistic contortions, we are statistically illiterate. Exponents and logarithms are not our strong point. “I’m no good at maths,” is a socially acceptable thing to claim, as risible as being proud of not being able to read.
So there isn’t much point in wittering on about the non-linear nature of Covid curves, or the ways in which a second full lockdown will produce a much worse economic outcome, in a very non-linear way, than did the first lockdown, bad as that was and still is.
Coronavirus and Brexit will be joined in the final quarter of 2020 by the US presidential election – a trifecta of risks that are impossible to call, either on their own or how they will combine. To risk another mathematical point, I think the individual risks of each of the three elements of the trifecta are multiplicative rather than additive.
Why can’t we be just a little bit more Germanic in terms of our ability to get things done?
Putting them all together has the potential to make things much, much worse. Before we despair, we should remind ourselves that risk is a two-sided coin: there is always the possibility of a benign outcome. Or indeed, things combining to produce a very good outcome. Maybe it’s just all the new restrictions and surging virus numbers: it doesn’t seem like the good and bad risks have equal probabilities right now.
Britain will get its EU exit deal or it won’t. Again, either outcome will elicit change, potentially lots of it, particularly for Ireland. While a deal is still a possibility, it seems unimaginable that both government and the private sectors in all affected countries will not have made plans for a bad outcome. Survey evidence of the relevant firms suggest, however, that preparations are often noticeable by their absence.
The capacity of the State to prepare for known events has been called into question by Covid-19: why can’t we be just a little bit more Germanic in terms of our ability to get things done?
Risk and probability can be very subjective. Today’s pessimistic mood could easily be reversed in an instant by positive vaccine news or a sudden outbreak of rationality in Westminster. If the virus is tamed, economies will recover. If we are looking at this going on well into 2021 the economic and, therefore, political ramifications will be profound. Either way, change, potentially great change, is coming. Lenin was right about some things.