Brexit and Covid haunt Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak’s biggest threat is rising working class power
By Alex Callinicos
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Tuesday 07 March 2023
His own negligence, cynicism, and corruption aside, two things destroyed Boris Johnson’s government—Brexit, which he failed to “get done”, and Covid-19. Both have come back to haunt Rishi Sunak.
Covid has jumped back into the headlines thanks to the “Lockdown Files”—the huge treasure trove of WhatsApp messages involving Matt Hancock when he was health secretary. The right-wing journalist Isabel Oakeshott leaked them to the Telegraph newspaper. Its spin is summed up by one of its most noxious columnists, Allison Pearson, “Lockdown sceptics like me were demonised—but we were right.”
Oh no you weren’t. In the Telegraph’s list of “The Lockdown Files—ten things we’ve learned so far”, the thing that stands out is Hancock’s rejection of expert advice to have everyone going into care homes tested.
It was a decision that helped make care homes a killing ground for the elderly and ill. Lest anyone thinks the pandemic was imaginary, let’s remember that, according to the Office of National Statistics, nearly 220,000 people have died in Britain from Covid-related causes.
Nearly 30,000 died last year, when we were being told the pandemic was over. In the last week for which there are figures, ending 17 February, there were 476 Covid-related deaths.
The Marxist epidemiologist Rob Wallace rages in his new book that Joe Biden’s administration has presided over half a million Covid deaths in the United States—as many as under Donald Trump. His critique applies as much to the Tory government in Britain—the failure to address capitalist colonisation of nature, the absence of a worldwide vaccine rollout and the abandonment of precautionary measures. We’re likely to be living with—and dying from—Covid for many years to come.
Sunak also inherited from Johnson a poisonous relationship with the European Union (EU), thanks especially to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Both Brussels and Washington insisted that peace in Ireland meant keeping the border open between North and South. This could only be achieved, because of the EU’s demand to control its borders, in one of two ways.
Either the UK as a whole remained in the European Single Market and therefore subject to the European Court of Justice. This was agreed by Theresa May as a backstop when she made her Brexit deal, but was anathema to the Tory right and the Loyalist fanatics of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Johnson used this to replace May as prime minister, but then threw the DUP under the bus. His version of the Northern Ireland Protocol kept only the Six Counties in the Single Market, at the price of creating a customs border between them and the rest of the UK. This has created all kinds of disruption to trade and everyday life and encouraged the DUP to boycott power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
Johnson only agreed to the Protocol to rush Britain out of the EU. Once he’d succeeded, he instantly got buyer’s remorse and started to threaten that he would scrap the deal. This would turn sour relations between London and Brussels into something like open economic warfare.
Sunak’s mission is really to stabilise British capitalism after the disruption caused by Brexit, the pandemic, and Liz Truss. So he’s negotiated a deal with the EU—the Windsor framework. This reduces trade disruption and has been welcomed by business. The Tory right is split, while the DUP is trying to weigh a very difficult decision, since both rejecting and accepting the agreement have high costs.
Johnson also is on manoeuvres, probing whether opposing the Windsor framework may be his route back to Downing Street. But here Covid returns to haunt him, as the Privileges Committee investigates whether he lied to the House of Commons over his lockdown parties.
But that won’t remove Sunak’s biggest problem. Gavin Williamson, then education secretary, raged to Hancock against the teaching unions in October 2020, “They really really do just hate work.”
Three months later, the NEU union forced Johnson to protect families by shutting the schools. That same working class power threatens Sunak now.