Will the COVID-19 pandemic vindicate Brexit -- and Boris?

Boris Johnson and the Tories bet heavily that the UK could find quick economic success after the final Brexit agreement to justify the tortuous divorce process. This public-health victory, at least comparatively speaking, might prove even more convincing. And as the New York Times explains, the Tories right now are blessed to have the EU providing the wind for their sails:

Britain’s rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines has revived the political fortunes of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now, Mr. Johnson’s allies hope the stark disparity between Britain’s performance and the European Union’s will do something perhaps even more challenging: vindicate their larger Brexit project.

Pro-Brexit politicians and commentators are casting Britain’s vaccine deployment, which ranks among the fastest in the world, as an example of risk-taking and entrepreneurial pluck that comes from not being shackled to the collective decision-making of the 27 member states of the European Union.

With vaccination rates that are a fraction of Britain’s, threats of export bans on vaccines produced on the continent and churlish statements about British-made vaccines by leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France, the European Union has seemingly done all it can to make it look like Britain picked the right time to leave.

“It is the first serious test that the U.K. state has faced since Brexit,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent who studies the British right. “Boris Johnson is going to have a vaccine dividend, and that will give him a whole new narrative for the summer and beyond.”

Do the differences in COVID-19 response vindicate Brexit all on its own? In the short run, absolutely. And perhaps even in the long run despite other fallout from Brexit, as even a skeptic such as myself can admit. After all, it would be churlish even in long-term retrospect to overlook avoiding thousands of excess deaths, hospitalizations, and lockdowns by controlling the country’s own vaccine policy while the European Union enters yet another continent-wide spike in COVID-19 cases.

And it’s not just the Brexiteers who think the UK handled it better on their own, according to a new poll from Ipsos:

A new survey by Ipsos MORI in partnership with the EU|UK Forum shows that two-thirds (67%) of Britons believe the UK has handled COVID-19 vaccination programmes better than governments of countries in the EU.

This increases to 83% of those who voted to leave the EU in 2016, but even 65% of remain voters say the same, aligning with national views. Only 12% of Britons believe the UK has handled the vaccination programmes worse than the EU. Opinion is more equally divided when considering overall responses to the pandemic.

Two-fifths (40%) of Britons believe Brexit has made Britain’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic better, only 14% say it has made it worse. Those who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 are significantly more likely to believe the UK’s exit has had a positive effect on how it has handled the pandemic at 62%, however this is halved among those who voted to remain in 2016 (31%). Despite this, only 1 in 5 (22%) remain voters believe it has made Britain’s response to the pandemic worse.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Brexit is entirely vindicated. However, it certainly makes it look pretty darned good at the moment. Johnson and his team look like prophets rather than isolationists. And that’s largely due to the stunning incompetence demonstrated by the EU throughout this crisis, especially when it comes to vaccines and vaccinations. Having Macron and other foolish European leaders castigate the pretty clearly effective AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, the only vaccine available to them in any serious quantity, only adds to the Brexiteers’ column.

This is now, however. What happens later? Johnson and his team got Brexit accomplished by effectively abandoning Northern Ireland to the EU, at least on trade. The deal he cut on fishing rights has infuriated Scotland’s nationalists, who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place. At some point, Boris and the Brexiteers will have to deal with the fallout in both subordinate nations. Will the Brits remember the vaccination wins if/when Northern Ireland exercises its Good Friday option to seek reunification, having been shorn of its British identity in Brexit? If the Scots vote for independence in a future referendum and Boris ends up the first Prime Minister of England, will Brexit be viewed as positively?

Probably not. But Johnson isn’t faced with those issues now, either. He can take a victory lap instead, and hope that the EU’s disastrous performance might put off those reckonings with Belfast and Edinburgh for a while longer … and he might be betting correctly on that, too.