Today
Sun 5 December 2021

In an article first published in the October print edition of Byline Times, Chris Grey explores how continuing dishonesty around the entire Brexit project is resulting in continuing incompetence from the Government when it comes to dealing with its impact

The genius of the Vote Leave campaign was to convincingly propose that Brexit would be cost-free and to demonise all claims to the contrary as ‘Project Fear’. It was certainly never sold as ‘Brexit at any cost’ or as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

In fact, since the day after the 2016 Referendum result, the costs have been stacking up, often in the invisible form of growth foregone or investments not made. They are also being paid by just about every business sector in new trading and regulatory requirements, but the details of that are mainly only known to insiders in particular industries rather than being obvious as a big picture to the general public. 

Thus, it has only really been since the end of the Brexit transition period that there have been visible signs of the huge structural transformation that Britain is undergoing. 

Rotting fish and unharvested crops were early examples but, now, with sustained shortages in shops and, especially, long queues for petrol, there is something like a Brexit crisis beginning. Although the current fuel disruption will probably ease as people fill their tanks, in the absence of a sustainable solution to the driver shortage, it is always liable to recur. Meanwhile, the normal winter spike in demand for EU fresh produce will exacerbate food shortages.

Of course, the causes and effects are very complex, and many other factors – including most obviously the Coronavirus pandemic – are in play.

Brexiters are quick to point these out and, in doing so, easily slip from correctly saying that Brexit is not the only cause to falsely implying that this means it can be entirely discounted. The key point is that, while many countries may be experiencing similar problems, in Britain, uniquely, there is the additional and self-chosen burden of Brexit, which is why it is only here that we see panic buying of petrol, for example.

Some of that burden is inherent to Brexit itself, but the extent of it is also to do with the hard form of Brexit Boris Johnson’s Government chose. Then, within that, it is to do with the incompetence with which that form was implemented. 

Here, the architects of Brexit were prisoners of their own propaganda about its costlessness. The consequence was that, even assuming Brexit was a desirable thing, far too little planning and preparation was undertaken, because doing so would have entailed admitting the costs that were denied. 

Instead, Brexiters, including Johnson, persisted with the fantasy that there was some magical form of trade deal whereby the UK could ‘have its cake and eat it’. Indeed, even as he signed the deal with the EU which allowed anything but that, the Prime Minister claimed to have confounded his critics by negotiating such a ‘cakeist’ agreement.

This is why now, for instance, we are in the ludicrous situation where the EU was ready to implement controls on imports from the UK at the end of the transition period, whereas the UK has yet again delayed introducing full controls on imports from the EU. But the need for such controls was apparent from the moment, in January 2017, that Theresa May announced that Brexit would mean leaving both the customs union and the single market.

Since such things were still dismissed by Brexiters as Project Fear, little if anything was done to prepare. Even by July 2020, with the pandemic raging, when the UK still had the option to extend the transition period to give it more time to get ready, blind ideology trumped pragmatism and the chance was squandered. 

Similarly, the logistics and haulage industries have been warning for years about how Brexit would affect them, but were dismissed as doom-mongers. Even now as those warnings have been proved true, there are anonymous ministerial briefings about ‘diehard Remainers’ being responsible for stoking panic.

Meanwhile, it is already clear that the belated and grudging offer of temporary visas for HGV drivers is an entirely inadequate response to the magnitude of the problem created by ending freedom of movement even in the haulage industry, let alone all of the other sectors, such as social care, which face desperate staff shortages.

The dishonesty with which Brexit was proposed continues to contribute to the incompetence with which it is being delivered. This intertwines with Johnson’s reckless drive to ‘get Brexit done’, without regard for what he was agreeing to. That is most obvious with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he proclaimed to be a huge triumph of his negotiation because it removed May’s ‘backstop’. But it did so by creating an Irish Sea border, which from the outset he denied and which he now says is totally unacceptable. Yet, he and his MPs campaigned on it as a great ‘oven-ready deal’, voted for it in Parliament, and signed up to it in a binding international treaty.

Dishonesty and recklessness can work as political tactics for a while, but eventually reality catches up and this is what we are now witnessing in the economic crisis over supplies and the political crisis over Northern Ireland. 

It is impossible to turn the clock back, and there is little point in anyone saying ‘we told you so’. But we – collectively, as a country – do need to understand what has created this situation if we are to begin to mend it. Central to doing so is to start being honest about the rising costs of Brexit and to identify what needs to be done to reduce them. 

That does not mean re-joining the EU, which would be unacceptable to both the UK and the EU, at least until such a time as there is large, sustained, and genuinely enthusiastic support for that in the UK. But it could mean recognising that increased customs costs due to not having a UK-EU customs union far outweigh the benefits of the independent trade policy which having no customs union allows. That has always been true, and is all the more obvious now that it is clear that there is no UK-US trade deal in prospect. Along with aligning on food and related standards, this would also go a long way to addressing the Northern Ireland situation, rather than persisting with former Brexit chief negotiator David Frost’s aggressive and, worse, unrealistic blustering. 

It could also mean seeking single market membership via the European Free Trade Association – something like the ‘Norway’ Brexit that, for so long, we were told would be desirable. That would do much to remove the ludicrous regulatory hurdles UK businesses are now facing, for example in having to use the UKCA standard mark to sell products here and the CE mark to sell identical products in the EU.

This is another change that has been postponed because of a lack of readiness, and one which also illustrates the hidden costs of Brexit that are ramping up beneath the headline stories of shortages.

These choices were available to us after the Referendum and were not taken – a big reason being that single market membership entails freedom of movement of people.

But we have already begun to see how vital that is for Britain and this is going to continue, if only because the age profile of the British population means that, even if wages and work conditions massively improve, there simply aren’t enough people of working age here. It just wasn’t true that British people were ‘having their jobs taken’ by EU workers. We’ve also begun to see what has been lost to British people who want to work, study or retire on the continent. Despite the claims of some Brexiters, these things have not simply continued regardless of Brexit.

The key point is that we are not forever bound by those choices, made as they were in a highly toxic and impassioned political atmosphere. As in our personal lives, it is perfectly possible and sometimes wise to admit that mistakes have been made, to learn from them, and to put them right. Doing so would not be cost-free either and involves eating a certain amount of humble pie as a nation, just as, in our private lives, it can be hard to put things back on track after making a bad decision. But it would be a very harsh world in which people were not allowed to try to do so, and an absurd political world in which countries forbade themselves from doing this.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to this is the hardcore Brexiters. But they have had their chance. They promised that Brexit would be costless and we now know for a fact that it is not. The result of the Referendum has been fully honoured: the UK has left the EU and we certainly won’t be re-joining again without another referendum. 

So now we are fully entitled to make the best of what being out of the EU means rather than clinging with ideological dogmatism to that particular version which, between them, May and Johnson delivered. We are not prisoners of those decisions regardless of the crisis they are now creating. We can, to quote a phrase, take back control.

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