LONDON – The rapid launch of coronavirus vaccines in Britain has revived Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political fortunes. Now Johnson’s allies hope that the glaring disparity between Britain’s performance and that of the European Union will do something perhaps even more challenging: justify its larger Brexit project.
Pro-Brexit politicians and commentators are classifying vaccine implantation in Britain, which is among the fastest in the world, as an example of risk and entrepreneurial initiative that comes from not being stuck in the collective decision-making of the 27 member states of the European Union.
With vaccination rates that are a fraction of those in Britain, threats to ban exports of vaccines produced on the continent and crude statements about British-made vaccines by leaders like France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the European Union has apparently done everything it could to look like Britain chose the right time to leave.
“It is the first serious test the state of the UK has faced since Brexit,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent who studies the British right. “Boris Johnson will have a vaccine dividend, and that will give him an entirely new narrative for the summer and beyond.”
It is a narrative that seeks to divert attention from the costs of Brexit since Britain split from the European Union in January – harming disruptions in cross-channel trade and suffocating in reams of bureaucracy, among other headaches. And, conveniently, it ignores the distressing experience that many Britons had with the virus before the first “jabs” vaccines arrived last December.
Until then, the Johnson government was known primarily for its lengthy and erratic response to the pandemic – late blockades, frequent policy reversals, confusing public messages and an unfortunate testing and tracking system – all contributing to Britain having the greatest number of toll deaths in Europe.
Chaos destroyed the Conservative Party’s reputation for competence and left some questioning whether Johnson, having survived his own struggle against Covid-19 last April, would survive politically until the next general election, scheduled for 2024.
Now, however, the prime minister’s approval ratings have recovered, driven in large part by public enthusiasm for the vaccine’s launch.
Sixty-seven percent of respondents said they believed that Britain performed better on vaccinations than EU countries, according to new research conducted by Ipsos MORI for the EU-UK Forum, an organization that promotes the dialogue between channels. Only 12% said they thought Britain had performed worse, while 14% felt that both had handled things equally well.
Despite all its initial stumbles, said Kelly Beaver, director of Public Relations at Ipsos MORI, “the British public feels that, overall, the government has done well compared to its EU counterparts, undoubtedly a halo effect of the program vaccination that has so far been an incredible success. “
Significantly, a small plurality of respondents – 40 percent – said they thought Brexit helped improve the treatment of the pandemic in Britain, while 14 percent said it had worsened and 38 percent said it made no difference.
Overall, research shows that the strength of sentiment about Brexit has eased somewhat, although most expect it to raise food prices and make Europe’s vacation more difficult. And the British remain deeply divided, not only on EU membership, but also on other issues like crime, British values and political correctness.
The recovery of Johnson’s vaccine, analysts point out, may be fleeting if a new variant emerges or if the economy does not recover quickly.
But Goodwin said that one consequence of the vaccine’s success is that there are few signs of a significant number of people rethinking the wisdom of Brexit or suffering the acute regret – or as he called it, “Bregret” – that some expected.
The British media understandably gave more coverage to the 28 million people who were vaccinated than to the post-Brexit trade interruptions that affected some British food and seafood exports and left supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland empty.
The closure of many months in much of the British economy will also complicate the task of identifying the negative effects of Brexit, as they are likely to be lost in a sea of red paint. And long before the pandemic, economists predicted that the biggest cost of Brexit would be to dampen economic expansion, an effect that would worsen almost imperceptibly over many years, instead of creating a sudden shock.
In any case, the launch of the vaccine helped the government to refine a separate and distinct argument for Brexit, which emphasizes responsibility and accountability for economic costs or benefits.
David Frost, a former diplomat who negotiated the Brexit trade deal for Johnson and is now a cabinet minister, articulated this case earlier this month when he said that Britain’s accession to the European Union stifled his initiative, producing “a species of institutional paralysis. “
Britain faced problems “which we seem to find very difficult to muster the will to resolve, and I really think that EU membership has hampered our decision-making ability,” he said on the Policy Exchange, a research institute.
“Brexit does not solve these problems,” added Frost, “but it does give us the means to solve them, to move on, to control us, but also to reform our attitudes and make us a country that can deal with problems again. “
Britain, the authorities point out, placed risky bets on multiple vaccine candidates and aggressively blocked supplies in advance – characteristics, they say, that were visibly absent from the European Union’s strenuous, fought and risk-averse approach.
But critics argue that Britain could have done much of what it did as an active member of the European Union. The British medical regulator has always had the right to approve vaccines, on an emergency basis, faster than the rest of the bloc – as he did last December – and the government has always had the freedom to buy doses separately from the bloc, like some other. EU countries have already done so.
The strengths of Britain’s launch, these critics said, are rooted in its robust scientific establishment, which developed the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford vaccine, and its widely revered National Health Service, which distributed the doses. None of them were strengthened by the withdrawal from the European Union.
Britain has closed its own deal with AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company, which is at the center of its confrontation with the European Union, which took a long time to make these purchases. Brussels accused the company of giving preferential treatment to Britain at the bloc’s expense.
European leaders will be evaluating a plan this week to temporarily halt vaccine exports as a way to demand reciprocity with Britain and other countries, and that could leave Britain – and Johnson – badly exposed. The country relies heavily on vaccines manufactured in factories in Belgium and other European countries to maintain the rate of vaccination.
“What Brexit changes is Britain’s ability to protect foreign parts of its supply chains,” said Mark Malloch Brown, a diplomat and former Labor government minister who chaired an anti-Brexit group, Best for Britain. “The crisis, seen from the other side, exposes Britain’s vulnerability.”
Britain’s dependence on the European Union goes beyond a constant supply of vaccines. It is by far Britain’s largest trading partner, and the two sides have close ties in security and law enforcement. Although Johnson himself has avoided using openly provocative language against Brussels, he has overseen a rapid deterioration in relations since Britain was officially dismissed on January 1.
“I am concerned that they are being carried away by the evidence that Brexit was a good thing, that they will continue to mock Europe,” said Jonathan Powell, who served as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff. “So, the next time we need them for something, the shot will backfire on us.”