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Sensemaker, 19 October 2020

Monday 19 October 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The door to a UK-EU trade deal remains ajar, said Michael Gove, lending credence to EU officials’ hunch that Downing Street was posturing last week when it said trade talks were “over”.
  • Italy and Ireland imposed tough new restrictions on movement to curb the spread of Covid.
  • Jacinda Ardern won a second term as New Zealand’s prime minister, becoming the first party leader to win an outright majority since proportional representation was introduced in 1996.
  • Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, locked horns with Westminster in a battle about Covid funding but also about how England is run. (More below in Matthew d’Ancona’s column).

US election stock take. There are 15 days to go. Biden leads by 8.9 points nationally and 4.3, on average, in the top six battleground states. The Real Clear Politics electoral college forecast gives him 357 votes to Trump’s 181. Fivethirtyeight gives him an 87 per cent chance of victory and he has a 10-point lead among over-65s (compared with a seven point deficit for Hillary Clinton at this stage in the 2016 race).

Biden also has a 23-point poll lead among women, the widest of any candidate since 1976, as compared with election day exit polls. Last week he beat Trump in TV ratings on the night of their two “town halls”, and he has a lot more cash on hand. As of 15 October Team Biden had $432 million compared with $251 million for the Trump campaign.

The gist is that Biden is poised to win handily. Some Democrats are busy planning the next four years on the basis that they take the White House, flip the Senate and expand their majority in the lower House. But others are worried, or pretend to be:

  • “Variables like turnout mean that in a number of critical states we are functionally tied,” Biden’s campaign manager told donors on Saturday, with an eye to squeezing more money out of them in the final straight.
  • Priorities USA, a Democratic fundraising operation, braced for bad news by modelling a scenario in which support for Biden from white working class voters and people of colour came in 3 and 4 per cent below expectations respectively. That put the electoral college race in a dead heat.
  • And the Washington Post notes that three weeks out from the 2016 election Clinton was further ahead in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than Biden is now, and lost all three.

There are differences. Pollsters are trying much harder to find quiet Trump voters than they were four years ago. Biden isn’t Clinton, and we’re two weeks out, not three. But it’s too soon to be dissing Democratic worriers as bedwetters, even without worrying about an incumbent who may refuse to accept the result. Some say it would take a ten-point margin in the popular vote to force Trump to concede on the night. If so, the odds of a clean outcome on 3 November are still no better than even.

In the app today… listen to our Slow Newscast on the coming recession, with James Harding, former chancellor Alistair Darling and former Bank of England governor Mervyn King. Sign up for tonight’s members’ open house with James and Katie Vanneck-Smith, and for tomorrow’s breakfast ThinkIn on robots: “What can smart machines do for humankind and for you?”

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

China on the rebound
China hasn’t recorded annual growth of less than 6 per cent since the early 1990s. That is about to change – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts 1.9 per cent this year – but after two strong quarters of growth China will be the only big economy to avoid a Covid-induced recession in 2020 (compared with 4.3 per cent shrinkage forecast by the IMF for the US and 8.3 for the Eurozone). In Q2 China’s factories reopened months ahead of those in many other countries. In Q3 shops followed suit, and the result was quarterly growth of 4.9 per cent for July to September – marginally less than some analysts expected but still testament to the success of a national strategy of sequencing: draconian lockdown at any cost, followed by reopening, rather than trying and failing to do both at the same time.

Official Chinese statistics come with an implied health warning, but outsiders looking in concur that the real numbers will end the year in positive territory. Oxford Economics expects 2 per cent growth this year, and 7.6 per cent next. Covid may have come from Wuhan, but it looks certain to wound Trump’s economy much more severely than Xi’s.

New things technology, science, engineering

Big cat
A huge cat at least 2000 years old has been uncovered on a hillside overlooking the Nazca lines in Peru. The cat is part of the larger set of outsize desert etchings, which include a hummingbird and an orca, but it hadn’t been noticed by tourists or researchers until recently, and might have succumbed forever to erosion had conservationists not spotted it with the help of drone photography. It’s 37 metres long.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Dirty water
The FT reports that Japan is expected to release about a million tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific from the site of the Fukushima nuclear power station, which was wrecked by a tsunami and subsequent meltdowns in three of its six reactors in 2011. The contaminant is mildly radioactive tritium, an isotope of hydrogen. The official rationale for dumping the water is that it can’t be stored in tanks forever and that nuclear power stations routinely release tritium into the oceans. The Japanese fishing industry isn’t convinced, although Glow Sushi does have a certain ring to it.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

New Year vaccine?
Any vaccine update should be frontloaded with caveats, chief among them that historically only one in ten vaccines that reach the stage of human trials succeeds. That said, more than 40 trial Covid vaccines are at that stage, and the Sunday Times reported yesterday that the UK government is expecting vulnerable people to start receiving the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University soon after Christmas. If so, it would be a stunning achievement even if the vaccine doesn’t confer full immunity. But the moment vaccines start reaching people who need them, they will collide with misinformation from anti-vaxxers who say they do harm, and the complacency of young people who may feel invulnerable already. A big part of public health is education.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

“We are all Samuel”
Tens of thousands of mainly subdued protesters took to the streets of Paris yesterday to show solidarity with Samuel Paty, the teacher murdered by an 18 year-old Islamist originally from Chechnya, for showing his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a class on freedom of expression. Another teacher in the crowd told AFP she wouldn’t talk about the cartoons with her own students now for fear of being attacked. There is no censorship as powerful as self-censorship.

The week ahead

19/10 – First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford expected to announce whether to implement a Welsh national lockdown; EU-UK Joint Committee to meet in London to discuss Withdrawal Agreement; transport secretary Grant Shapps to speak at Airlines 2050 summit; UCAS applications deadline, 20/10 – Treasury to publish latest data on coronavirus loans and furlough scheme; former Blue Peter presenter John Leslie begins sexual assault trial at Southwark Crown Court, 21/10 – expert hearings begin in NHS contaminated blood public inquiry, 22/10 – HMRC publishes official statistics covering Eat Out to Help Out scheme; Apollo Theatre becomes first West End theatre to reopen with social distancing, 23/10 – ONS survey released assessing impact of COVID-19 outbreak on people, households and communities in Great Britain, 25/10 – British Summer Time ends; pubs and restaurants across Scotland’s central belt, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, due to reopen

 – in-person voting starts in Wisconsin; US senators expected to vote on whether to subpoena Twitter head Jack Dorsey following his site’s restrictions on a New York Post article about Biden, 21/10 – former French prime minister Edouard Philippe set to appear before Covid-19 inquiry; MEPs to vote on whether to limit use of words such as “burger” to branding for meat-only products, 22/10 – final US presidential debate to take place in Nashville; vote due on nomination of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, 24/10 – UN’s 75th anniversary; Guinness Six Nations resumes after hiatus since March, 25/10 – Chile to hold referendum on whether to replace country’s constitution

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell