Boris Johnson’s government is in trouble. Which is another way of saying Boris Johnson is in trouble.
His chosen route out of trouble is a new project, a new organising principle. Boris 2.0. Call it what you like, but Mr Brexit isn’t going to cut it any more with the public, who are being hit with too many bad things at once.
Brexit brought him into Number 10 but it will not sustain him there. The knives are out on the back benches over the poor performance of this British government.
Not surprising given that Boris Johnson has lost a 26 point lead over Labour in the opinion polls, with the new direction under Kier Starmer starting to look more like a genuine alternative government.
Meanwhile the actual government hands out a seemingly endless supply of sticks for Labour to beat it with.
In fact Labour do not even need to say a word on some issues – witness the fact that Boris Johnson has been played off the park by a 22-year-old footballer on social policy (Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals for deprived children has been masterful, and cuts straight through to the electorate).
But the Brexit emotional impulse is still a strong one (though not as strong as it used to be), and Mr Starmer needs to be careful not to be seen to be trying to undermine Brexit as a concept.
But the UK government’s failure to secure a trade deal has gone beyond the point of negotiating tactics, and is now starting to gain traction as a serious negative for the Johnson regime.
The report from Britain’s National Audit Office (NAO) last Monday – along with more evidence in the Parliamentary Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU – listed in painful detail how far behind readiness the UK customs computer systems are.
This is especially the case with the system required to operate the Northern Ireland Protocol arrangements, which industry experts told the Committee would not be ready before 2022).
This morning, adding to the signals that a deal is now in prospect, the tough talking Agriculture and Environment Secretary George Eustice said this week is ”when things need to move” for the UK and EU to agree to a trade deal.
He said there would be a “phasing in” of customs arrangements for Northern Ireland and this was something the UK was discussing in the Specialised Joint Committee on the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol with the EU.
It is not just computer systems that are behind – the physical customs infrastructure is also far behind schedule, and will not be ready for 1 January. Indeed, the NAO cast doubt that much of it will be ready for 1 July 2021, when the UK government said full customs controls will be implemented.
The auditors also pointed to HMRC their fears for the revenue fraud implications of having such a huge gaping hole in the customs, excise and VAT regime for so long.
Then there are the negative economic consequences of leaving the Customs Union – bad in all circumstances, doubly so without a trade deal (let alone the negative impact of departing the single market).
Those negative consequences – on top of the colossal economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic – may be too much to handle. In the UK, 700,000 people have lost their jobs so far because of the health crisis.
The Johnson government’s biggest problem is its less than stellar performance in handling the pandemic.
While no western government has done anywhere near as well as the east Asian states in dealing with the consequences of Covid-19, the British approach has seen a high death toll – passing 51,000 this weekend.
Then there is a shambolic test and trace system, delivered at enormous cost by private sector companies, and wildly optimistic promotion of vaccines and other technologies, always described as “game changers” or world beating”, none of which have proven to be so.
All of which has just deepened public cynicism, which was already piqued in the wake of Dominic Cummings’s drive to Durham, breaking the lockdown regulations with impunity back in the springtime.
Now Mr Cummings is gone, along with communications chief Lee Cain (paying the price for a communications policy that was clearly failing to work).
More are expected to follow them out the gate – and all the names in the mix are associated with the Vote Leave campaign.
Brexit hardly figures in news reporting in Britain these days – and hasn’t done so for most of the year. The public, understandably, are more focused on surviving the pandemic.
It’s as if Brexit has become a liability, and those most active in promoting it are now seen as being in the way of the government doing what it needs to do – getting Brexit off the table so it can focus on the much bigger problems of the pandemic.
So a pivot is needed – not just on Brexit, but on everything.
The big organising principle is the environment. The UK is chairing the COP26 summit at the end of the year, so there is a busy round of diplomacy ahead.
The US under Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, but Joe Biden is committed to rejoining it. This gives the British side a great opportunity to reach out to the Biden White House and be seen to be doing something positive.
It will also give it a platform for reaching out to the EU side with a positive common agenda – a task made infinitely easier if the post-Brexit trade deal is over and done with.
The foreign policy element is just the backdrop for the main action, which is using environmental policy to drive change in domestic policy and rejuvenate the economy.
The Covid crisis has changed the way people work (or do not work) and has given many pause for thought about the type of society they want to live in.
For many, hearing birdsong in the near deserted big cities has been revelatory. Taking to bicycles in clean air, on largely traffic-free streets, similarly so.
Anti-climate change action cuts through to many areas of the economy and society. It’s popular – there is lots of buy in among the general public. It makes people feel good – and everyone loves a feel good factor, especially a feel good politician like Boris Johnson.
He is at his most comfortable selling big, optimistic ideas (especially if they are long term and don’t have much detail attached to them).
There is no ‘feelgood factor’ around Brexit. It’s feelgood moment has been and gone – 23 June, 2016 to 31 January, 2020 – the day the UK left the EU, and the day the first coronavirus infection was recorded in Britain.
In the face of so much devastation from Covid-19, hardline Brexit zealotry could now be seen as the self indulgence of an out-of-touch elite.
All logic, all common sense, and all the political signals coming from London and Brussels argues for a deal this week (though logic and common sense have not been notable drivers of the Brexit process so far, and cannot be relied upon).
But the defenestration of Dominic Cummings is a big political moment.
The exit from Brexit is neigh: then it is the “Green and Pleasant Land” all the way in UK government communications.