t is sometimes reported that Boris Johnson’s preferred method of decision-making is to delay matters for so long that the decision effectively makes itself. Hence the cancellation, or rather postponement, of his trade mission to India. Having no doubt been informed by his own health advisers that India was to be placed on the “red list” for travel restrictions, the prime minister could hardly press on with his trip. He could have called it off days ago, when the extreme seriousness of the situation in India first became clear, but it would have been embarrassing for him and his hosts. Covid intervened. Infection rates are rising rapidly, the vaccination programme is nowhere near complete, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, and a new variant of the coronavirus, possibly more dangerous, is circulating; and these facts are connected. The questions of why it took the government so long to restrict travel from India, and how long the delay after the official public health advice to that effect was received, remain unanswered.
It is in fact the second time the visit has been postponed, and both were Covid-related. It is also doubly disappointing for the prime minister, who needs a post-Brexit trade deal with a major economy as a totem of the new outward-looking “Global Britain” he has talked about so much. With the likes of China, Russia and Turkey presenting diplomatic difficulties, the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia offering similar difficulties and talks with America contingent on the Irish Protocol in the Brexit deal, India is about the only suitor left.
When Mr Johnson does manage to meet his counterpart, Narendra Modi, the talks will be difficult. The UK’s relative importance to India in trade in goods and services has declined alarmingly in recent years, despite a welcome transfusion of Indian investment into the British steel industry and Jaguar Land Rover, for example. and it is clear that the UK has the most to gain from a new arrangement with this regional superpower. Sentimentality about tea, cricket and the historic memories (not all happy) shared between the Britain and its former imperial possession will hardly suffice, and there is of course the ever-present risk of a Johnsonian “joke” about the Raj going down badly. When he was foreign secretary he could not resist humming “On the Road to Mandalay” (words by Rudyard Kipling) on an official visit to a Buddhist shrine in Myanmar, formerly (and still in Johnson’s mind) Burma.