Despite a heatwave engulfing the nation over the last few days, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t been the sunniest time for the prime minister. After a largely successful G7 summit in Cornwall was overshadowed by the latest arguments over the Northern Ireland protocol, Boris Johnson was yesterday forced to delay so-called “freedom day” on 21 June. This week, we analyse the implications for the government, take a look at the Commons tussle over foreign aid and the news that the UK has signed a post-Brexit free trade agreement with Australia.
Freedom day delayed
After days of speculation in the press, the prime minister yesterday confirmed that the final stage of the government’s planned easing of COVID-19 restrictions would be delayed by four weeks from 21 June to 19 July. Stage four was set to see the end to all restrictions on social contact, allowing hospitality and sporting venues to operate at full capacity. Due to the delay, however, this will not be the case and mask mandates will continue in shops and on public transport, with work-from-home guidance also remaining in effect. A change to regulations for weddings was announced, with the cap of 30 guests being lifted from Monday, albeit with social distancing still being required.
The delay has been caused by an increase in the so called “delta variant”, first detected in India, which health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock says now accounts for more than 90% of new infections in the UK. The rationale for the delay is to ensure that more people can receive their second vaccination and allow for more research to be undertaken on what impact they are having on infection rates, particularly amongst the young.
The delay will be subject to a vote in the House of Commons, which Labour has already pledged, it will support. It will be interesting to note the number of Conservative MPs who rebel, with Philip Davies MP already describing the move as an “unjustified assault on our freedoms”, which is “doing untold damage to many businesses and people’s livelihoods.” Given Labour’s support there is no chance the government will lose the vote, but this may only empower more backbenchers to speak out as an act of protest. The prime minister has a difficult balancing act to undertake between restoring freedoms and ensuring safety, but Johnson will be keen to ensure this latest delay will be the last so as to not squander his commanding lead in the polls.
In between making the decision regarding the postponement of so-called “freedom day”, the prime minister had the small task of hosting the G7 summit in Cornwall this weekend. The summit was the first in-person gathering of world leaders since 2019, and also marked Biden’s first overseas visit of his administration. The government went all-out to woo the new president, organising a meeting with the Queen on Sunday afternoon at Windsor Castle. Building a strong relationship with Biden is crucial for Johnson, as the president is often seen as sympathetic to the EU position on the backstop, due to his Irish heritage.
The key outcome from the summit was the nations’ pledge to donate one billion COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries over the next year. The donations will be provided on either a bilateral basis, or as part of the World Health Organisation (WHO) led COVAX scheme. In a break with the nationalist rhetoric of the Trump administration, global leaders took advantage of Biden’s pledge to return to multilateralism, with the official summit communique pledging to “vaccinate the world by getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible, as fast as possible.” There were also pledges to tackle climate change by proposing to raise $100bn a year to help poor countries cut emissions, as well as a re-commitment to reach zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, at the latest.
Despite the many positive announcements, the summit was once again overshadowed by Brexit. The French and German governments in particular, remain suspicious of the prime minister, especially as he has threatened to delay the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol in recent weeks. The appearance of the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost at the summit also did not go down well with Germany and France, who interpreted the move as the UK seeking to go back on its commitments enshrined in the Brexit deal. With patience wearing thin on all sides, ensuring a domestic and internationally acceptable solution to the backstop will prove to be a significant challenge for the PM.
Foreign aid fiasco
While the G7 saw announcements regarding the provision of vaccines for less developed nations, last week saw an attempt to force the government to fulfil its manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid, stymied by Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
A group of Conservative rebels, led by former secretary of state for international development, Andrew Mitchell MP, had sought to add an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) bill that would have forced the government to meet the 0.7% spending commitment, or see the shortfall re-allocated from ARIA’s budget. Mitchell confidently stated that the amendment would have passed by a majority “of at least nine”, but the Speaker ruled that the amendment was not within the scope of the Bill. He did allow for a separate non-binding debate and vote on the issue to occur, and noted that he would facilitate a binding vote should the government not bring the issue back before the Commons.
Given the confidence of the rebels that they have the numbers to force the government to readopt the 0.7% target when the opportunity allows, the government is likely to do whatever it can to stop such a vote from occurring. How it can do this remains to be seen however, especially as pressure mounts on the government to change course, with party bigwigs such as former prime minister Theresa May, stating that foreign aid cuts “will have a devastating impact on the poorest in the world and damage the UK.” Despite this, a YouGov poll from December found that two thirds of the British public support a cut to the foreign aid budget, and so this may allow the prime minister to once again claim he is on the side of the public as opposed to “out of touch elites” in Westminster.
Trading down under
Instead of foreign aid and COVID-19 roadmap delays, the government will be keen to ensure that the first major post-Brexit trade-deal dominates the headlines. The deal with Australia has been announced this morning and is seen as an important move towards the UK potentially joining an Asia/Pacific trading bloc in the future. The prime minister hailed the deal as “global Britain at its best - looking outwards and striking deals that deepen our alliances”, and noted how it would allow British products such as cars and Scottish whisky to be sold to Australians for cheaper prices.
Farmers have put forward concerns over the deal however, focusing on compromises to food standards and fears that prices could be undercut by large Australian farms. The government insists that the deal includes protections for the farming sector, but it will be wary of the PR implications of any perceived reductions in standards, especially over fears of chlorinated chicken being allowed into the UK as part of any future trade deal with the USA.
Overall the news serves as a welcome distraction for the government, who after the G7 will once again be able to push forward its messaging that the post-Brexit UK is once again a major player on the global trading scene. However, with agricultural workers a core voting block for the Conservatives, the PM must be wary of the cost that these deals could have if the sector is negatively impacted.
After all the focus on the G7 summit last weekend, moving forward, the most important action is likely to take place within the House of Commons. With rebellions over the extended COVID-19 restrictions and foreign aid expected, the government will be hopeful that the news of free trade deals and the expansion of vaccinations to all over-18s will have more cut through with the electorate. As long as the sun keeps shining, the prime minister will likely come through the next few weeks unscathed. If cases of the delta variant continue to increase and another delay becomes likely, that could cause serious problems for the government as the public mood may shift decisively.