Priti Patel is right that the government was ‘ahead of the curve’ in Dover – shame it was for all the wrong reasons

The government long ago realised that there was a distinct risk that the haulage trade would crash land in the event of a no deal Brexit – Covid has simply accelerated the process

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 22 December 2020 17:13 GMT
The home secretary, Priti Patel, on BBC Breakfast
The home secretary, Priti Patel, on BBC Breakfast (BBC Breakfast)

The thing about people who use the expression “ahead of the curve” is that, by using that very phrase, they are in fact very much “behind the curve”. Priti Patel, who you might think of as notably behind the curve in HR terms, proved the point, but a little more explanation might be useful.  

The phrase “ahead of the curve”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated in aviation, with a recorded usage in 1926 relating to pilots getting “ahead of the power curve”. After that it gradually altered and spread via military usage until, from about the 1960s, it entered into management jargon, where it died a death through overuse and bastardisation of meaning. These days it more usually obscures meaning, as opposed to offering insight.  

As it happens, the government was only ever going to be “ahead of the curve” in Dover because, to go back to the roots of the expression, it realised that there was a distinct risk that the haulage trade would crash land in the event of a no deal Brexit. This scenario has been more or less on the cards since the first, supposedly unmissable, Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019 came and went. 

Since then, various contingency plans have been put in place and planning exercises with evocative names, such as Operation Yellowhammer, Operation Kingfisher, Operation Black Swan, Operation Brock and Operation Stack, were undertaken to foresee problems and test the infrastructure. All were the rough equivalent of a pilot practising an emergency landing, and even they have been found wanting in this latest crisis (albeit not directly or wholly due to Brexit). Put at its most basic, there aren’t enough loos.

Elsewhere, the Johnson government is very often to be found flying blind or in the wrong direction, with little grasp as to where the power curve lies. The arrival of Covid found the nation hopelessly underprepared to face a pandemic many experts had long predicted was inevitable. Especially in the early stages of the outbreak there were notorious shortages of protective clothing, ventilators and hospital beds.

A more constant feature has been the continual failure to implement a functioning test and trace system. At successive points, too, decisions on lockdown were taken late or halfheartedly, and with local consultations neglected.

To be fair to ministers, some aspects of the crisis were acted on speedily and decisively. The chancellor, Rushi Sunak, and HM Treasury were probably ahead of the (sharply downwards) economic curve, while the Nightingale hospitals were also ready in time. Those in the NHS, the medical regulator, universities and pharma companies have moved with impressive speed to develop new treatments and vaccines, and indeed to identify the new more infectious mutation of the coronavirus.

If there is one area where Ms Patel has been ahead of the curve, it is in the difficult art of political survival. Like a bomber plane returning from a particularly difficult raid, she’s very often found herself hit by flak and tailspining towards political oblivion. Yet somehow she’s stayed airborne, pulled out of the dive and patched things up ready for her next operation. Impressive, in its way, but not much help to those poor truckers stuck in Dover.  

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in