It’s British Conservatives in Need of Healing Even as Queen Is Ill
The queen’s catching the coronavirus now turns the public gaze back to a health emergency away from which the government is keen to move.
Queen Elizabeth’s case of Covid could spell bad news for Britain’s Conservative government. The crisis in Ukraine, after all, had been drawing attention away from cross-Channel illegal migration issues and the “Partygate” scandal that sparked calls for Prime Minister Johnson’s resignation.
The latter affair also had roots in Covid — civil servants and political appointees enjoying wine and cake together at a time when pandemic regulations banned social gatherings. The queen’s catching the coronavirus now turns the public gaze back to a health emergency away from which the government is keen to move.
This is Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee Year. Hers is a record of longevity that no previous British monarch has ever met. It commemorates her accession to the throne 70 years ago with a series of events including a rare double public holiday. Everything from the granting of city statutes to the holding of street parties is planned for this year of celebration.
Yet now that could be under threat if the 95-year-old sovereign’s health takes a turn for the worse. It is also thought that royal officials encouraged the Queen’s son, Prince Andrew, to settle his embarrassing recent legal troubles out of court for fear that ongoing news coverage might tarnish the luster of this jubilee year.
The queen herself will continue to perform official functions virtually from her self-isolation in Windsor Castle until such time as, God (to whom she reports directly) willing, she recovers.
Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine could be seen as a politically useful diversion for Mr. Johnson, though it is hardly one he welcomes. The prime minister has proved himself a strong supporter of Ukraine, holding a firm line among European leaders while authorizing the sending of light anti-armour defensive weapon systems to Ukraine’s army.
Mr. Johnson has also doubled the number of U.K. personnel at the British-led NATO battlegroup in Estonia and sent additional tanks and armored vehicles to the Baltic state. Meanwhile, Operation Orbital, ongoing since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2015, has seen British armed forces training more than 22,000 Ukrainian defense personnel.
As of earlier this month, Parliament granted government more powers to extend sanctions to a much broader range of Russian individuals and institutions (including financial firms) in case the Kremlin decides to invade its neighbor. Given the extensive Russian use of U.K. financial institutions as well as investment in London property, the threat could pack a punch.
A recent British government report found that Britain “continues to see a significant volume of Russian, or Russian-linked, illicit finance channeled through” the British economy. A corruption watchdog, Transparency International, said in 2020 that Russians have a hand in up to 20 percent of the 5 billion pounds worth of property in the U.K. it has identified as being of a suspicious and potentially criminal nature.
The Ukrainian crisis has also further exposed the fragility of the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. E.U. members Poland and France are standing firm with Britain in pursuing paths of supporting Ukraine. Germany has been less enthusiastic in its response. This is unsurprising given the country will have completely phased out its nuclear power generation by the end of this year, rendering the country even more reliant on Russian gas supplies.
Britain argues — as President Trump did — that too many NATO member states fail to honor their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on shared defense, leaving the bigger spenders with responsibilities for countries unwilling to make the investment in defending themselves. The past year has seen a significant uptick in defense spending proportional to GDP in Croatia, the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania.
The British government has committed $22 billion above and beyond the Conservative manifesto commitment at the 2019 general election, and the recent AUKUS agreement with Australia and America signals the strength of Mr. Johnson’s dedication to making sure Britain bolsters its relationships with friendly nations.
Ukraine has also provided Westminster with a rare chance to show cross-party unity. Mr. Johnson and the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, made a joint visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels this month, though the Labor leader was left with a bit of egg on his face when the youth branch of his party called on the leadership to “stop backing NATO aggression.”
Despite all the coverage of Ukraine, however, British voters seem to be most worried about the government’s inability to stem the growing tide of illegal migration across the English Channel. Migrant numbers more than tripled to 28,431 last year from 8,438 in 2020 and just 297 in 2018.
Their origins have varied according to political crises, with Afghans taking the lead from Iranians and Eritreans since the fall of Kabul. The future of the Conservative government is likely to be decided by voters more concerned by the U.K.’s ability to defend its own shores than the Ukrainians’ ability to defend their borders — unless a royal case of Covid distracts the public from more pressing concerns.