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Three jabs on a shirt

Monday 1 February 2021

Vaccine nationalism is inevitable, especially after Boris Johnson’s victory over the European Commission. But now the PM faces much deeper and unsettling questions about the UK’s place in the world

“I think the other fellow just blinked”: you can tell when a government has been through an authentic confrontation because its members start to allude, as if by reflex, to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Describing the European Commission’s climb-down on Friday night over vaccine exports to the UK, several senior sources referred to these words – words that, by his own account, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk used on 24 October 1962, as Soviet vessels carrying nuclear missiles to Cuba turned round only a few miles away from the American blockade line.

In this instance, to indulge the allusion, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, had been playing the part of the Kremlin, effectively dispatching ships to Cuba by triggering Article 16 of the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol. Her original intention was to seal the border between the North and the Republic to block a potential back-door route for Pfizer vaccine into the UK.

This was a completely disproportionate response to the failure of another company (AstraZeneca) to deliver as many jabs as promised on time to the European Union; a peevish retaliation by Brussels against Britain for having planned its vaccine strategy more efficiently. 

As Tortoise revealed last month, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, brokered a deal in May between the Oxford University vaccine researchers and AstraZeneca, rather than their usual corporate partners, Merck & Co., precisely because the British-Swedish multinational was willing to make a legally-binding commitment to deliver 100 million doses to the UK as a matter of priority. The contract-drafters of the EU were not as nimble in their dealings with AstraZeneca, which is one of the principal reasons why our 27 former partners are now experiencing vaccine supply issues.

On Friday night, it fell to Boris Johnson to play the role of JFK squaring up to Khrushchev in his telephone exchanges with von der Leyen, warning her that this escalation – which imperilled those elderly and vulnerable Britons waiting for their second dose of the Pfizer jab – would have punitive “consequences”.

The EC Commission President did indeed “blink”, promising that there would be no impounding of the vaccine consignments before they reached the UK, and that Article 16 would not, after all, be invoked. Von der Leyen’s climbdown was complete and her political position has been greatly undermined on the continent by her clod-hopping performance in this diplomatic incident (the German newspaper Die Zeit said that the European Commission had provided “the best advertisement for Brexit”).

Like the Kennedy administration after the Cuban crisis, Johnson’s government can now afford to be magnanimous in its moment of victory. Interviewed in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine deployment minister, said that the government was amicably “focused” upon partnership with the EU, had gone “out of our way” to assist with manufacturing difficulties on the continent, and “will continue to do so”.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, told Times Radio that – if supplies permitted – the UK might even help out EU countries facing vaccine shortages. “We’ve got enough vaccines to more than vaccinate the whole population and also help the rest of the world,” she said. “So those two things can both happen.”

As so often, naturally, this magnanimity is spiked with glee. Social media is awash with government-sponsored images of the Union Flag as the backdrop to triumphalist data on the UK vaccine roll-out. On Saturday, The Sun ran a well-briefed account of the stand-off with the headline ‘IT’S BREXIT 1 – BRUSSELS 0: Boris foils EU plot to snatch Britain’s vaccine supplies’.

Though officially instructed by the whips not to gloat, ministers and Conservative MPs cannot help themselves entirely. You might think, talking to some of them, that the UK had just beaten the EU in the Vaccine World Cup – on penalties – and will now face Israel in the Final, the fans chanting “Three Jabs on a Shirt”.

That’s the immediate politics of the episode, and sweet the moment certainly is for a government that has so often fallen short over the past 11 months. Yet, beneath the present warm glow of official magnanimity and not-so-official schadenfreude, there are deeper forces at work which have rattled senior members of the government.

First, there is the fact that we are now, most definitely and unambiguously, being treated as a foreign country by the EU. Yes, yes, of course, that was the whole point of Brexit, “taking back control”, and restoring sovereignty. But it is one thing to talk about divorce. Quite another to find your clothes in a heap on the pavement, the locks to the front door changed, and your dog not speaking to you.

“I get that ‘Brexit means Brexit’,” one pro-Leave Cabinet minister said to me before last week’s vaccine row, “but, if I’m honest, I’m still getting my head round them dealing with us as total foreigners.” Which, like so much else associated with Brexit, is wholly irrational but emotionally explicable.

What is dawning on this government is precisely what lies ahead: Johnson’s trade deal with Brussels was only reached on Christmas Eve, and already Brussels has deployed one of its supposedly last-resort mechanisms to get its way. On this occasion, the UK prevailed. But what about next time?

For so long, Brexit was a movement, an aspiration, a mood. Now it is a very practical reality: in all probability, a permanent state of oscillation between collaboration and attrition, punctuated by flare-ups of the sort we saw last week. All the pro-Leave slogans and posturings of the last five years are now irrelevant. The past is a foreign country, and so too (as far as Brussels is concerned) is the UK.

This dovetails with a second anxiety, and one that long predates Brexit. Scroll back to 11 July 2005, two months after Tony Blair’s third general election victory, and we find the Tory MP for Henley, one Boris Johnson, signing the following parliamentary early day motion: “That this House notes with concern that the proportion of food and drink produced in the UK for domestic consumption has fallen significantly under the present Government following a long plateau of stability in market share; recognises that this has had wide ranging implications for farm incomes, jobs, the environment and animal welfare; urges United Kingdom supermarket chains to support British produce; and calls on the Government to introduce legislation to ensure that only food produced in the UK can be labelled as British.”

Why dredge up this 16-year-old EDM – little more than a petition that, like most such motions, went nowhere? Because Johnson’s support reflects a feature of his fickle political personality that is often overlooked: a belief that Britain is dangerously dependent upon foreign supply chains, and must pursue greater national self-sufficiency.

The dream of autarky – total national self-reliance – is one that has always had its champions. In Japan, it is known as sakoku, in China (following Mao) as zili gengsheng, and in North Korea as juche. Rousseau believed in it – “Think little about abroad, worry little about commerce” – as, famously, did J.M. Keynes. In his 1933 essay ‘National Self-Sufficiency’, the great economist declared that “we all need to be as free as possible of interference from economic changes elsewhere, in order to make our own favorite experiments towards the ideal social republic of the future,” and that “a deliberate movement towards greater national self-sufficiency and economic isolation will make our task easier”.

The fascist experiments in autarky of the 1930s and beyond were to prove how wretchedly deluded Keynes and his disciples were in their belief that such economic strategies encourage peace. For decades, we have grown used to precisely the opposite proposition: that the ever-deepening interdependence of nations upon one another and the hyper-connectedness of the modern world are the best means of encouraging prosperity and minimising conflict.

That proposition, as Johnson would be quick to acknowledge, retains much of its force. Like all Conservatives of his generation, he was raised to believe in free trade, to smash economic barriers, to oppose protectionism in all its forms.

Yet this is no longer the whole of the argument, no longer the final word: the pulverising forces of globalisation, the growing dependence of Western nations upon Chinese manufacturing and the impact of Covid upon international supply chains have reanimated the appeal of economic self-reliance. As the US commentator Fareed Zakaria writes in his book Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World: “globalization isn’t dead. But we could kill it.”

Donald Trump’s economic nationalism was impossible to miss. In his (failed) bid to “onshore” jobs previously lost by the US to other countries, his trade war with China and his “America First” passion for tariffs, he gave his nativist politics a snarling economic face.

Nothing so brazen has entered the British political mainstream. But more attention should be paid to Project Defend, the cross-Whitehall initiative, entrusted to Dominic Raab by the PM in May, to minimise the UK’s dependence upon other countries for medical supplies and other strategic necessities. Two inter-departmental groups were established last year to examine national resilience and the potential for the “repatriation” of key manufacturing capacity.

Ministers are cagey about discussing the project, even before parliamentary select committees, citing “national security”. What they admit in private is that they do not believe that the existing systems of global governance and international regulation are robust – having witnessed their pathetic performance during the pandemic – and that the UK must prepare for a world in which, more than ever, it is every nation for itself.

It is in this context that the work of the Vaccine Task Force, under Kate Bingham, should be considered. It was, and remains, explicitly part of the VTF’s remit to put in place “infrastructure, capabilities and governance to ensure the UK is better placed to respond rapidly to future threats”.

The success of the vaccine roll-out so far – 598,389 people receiving their first dose on Saturday – is in no small part a tribute to Bingham’s preparatory work (as well as the brilliance of the scientists behind the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs). National resilience of this sort is an unqualified good.

What troubles and muddles ministers in their moments of candour is that… well, let’s be honest, this is not a government with a talent for reflection or deep thought. It is a populist regime that thrives on fast results, infectious slogans and easy answers to complex problems.

Yet the questions posed by last week’s diplomatic crisis between the EU and the UK are unsettlingly profound. To be clear: globalisation is here to stay. But the pandemic has undoubtedly forced nations into a moment of introspection and prickly awareness that the just-in-time supply chains of the past are no longer sufficient; that (at the very least) regional manufacture of certain products will become ever more essential; that the closing of borders may become increasingly common; that the domestic capacity to manufacture and stockpile some of those products will increasingly become a matter of national security as well as commercial convenience; and that these new imperatives will lead, increasingly, to international confrontations of the sort that was only narrowly avoided on Friday night.

It is, in the words of one minister, “head-splitting stuff”. If only everything in life were as easy as winning a referendum.