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Going down the Brexit hole
Slow Views

Going down the Brexit hole

Friday 1 October 2021

The petrol shortages are just the start of it. The government is going to have to do a lot more than issue temporary visas if they want to pull themselves – and us – out


Personal attacks have no place in responsible journalism. So I’ll just say the former MP who went on to lead one of Britain’s biggest retailers was the rudest, most arrogant, most humourless villain I met in a whole season as a ski bum, and leave it at that. 

This compartmentalisation of personal feelings is important because the ex-MP in question is often worth listening to. He recently wrote a piece for a big mid-market newspaper blaming the EU for the “fandango of bureaucracy” British exporters now face at the EU border as a third country. This seemed unfair given it was Britain that chose to leave, but he did offer a solution: digitise the border, acknowledge EU-UK equivalence in food standards, and junk the red tape.

You can see what happened in the preceding paragraphs. I tried to come at Brexit from an oblique angle, avoiding the word, seeing merit in an argument I don’t agree with, and channelling my rage elsewhere. 

It’s the new British self-censorship, as many have noted more eloquently than I since petrol queues started creeping backwards up the M20 (and onto a roundabout in Bromley where none other than Nigel Farage was rear-ended yesterday while looking for fuel).

Farage, naturally, would not blame Brexit for the queues. Or for the HGV driver shortage that causes them, or the earlier shortages of foodstuffs and carbon dioxide, or those of turkeys (and tangerines?) to come. But nor will the Labour party or the BBC, without whole boxes of caveats.

So let’s be clear: Brexit-related supply chain problems are what all the UK’s shortages have in common. Of course there are other factors, Covid chief among them, but the experience of the rest of Europe suggests that without Brexit there would be no serious shortages of anything in Britain.

Two questions arise: why doesn’t post-Brexit Britain talk about Brexit? And what is to be done (not about the lack of discussion, but about Brexit)?

Answers to the first of these surely include boredom, anger and fear. The boredom is to be found among people who genuinely don’t care about the details of Brexit – or thought they didn’t until these past ten days – and who don’t cleave ideologically to either side of a debate they hoped was done. 

For these people, Laurence Bolton of the National Driving School in Croydon offers a genial apology. Why? Because he feels obliged to note in his latest YouTube video that Brexit is “back on the menu” and “obviously… does impact the HGV / LGV [Light Goods Vehicle] driver shortage”. (That shortage stands at 100,000 drivers now but already stood at 60,000 before Covid, a quarter of whom were accounted for by EU drivers who’d gone home since 2016, leaving the UK in “a bit of a hole”.)

The anger is felt by people who’d rather blame the government than Brexit for a sense of a country failing on fundamentals – people like Clive Black, a retail analyst at Shore Capital. He tells me that the shortages are a simple function of incompetence and bad management; about poorly advised ministers, especially at Defra and the Home Office, offering only “last-minute, panic-driven and remedial” solutions to crises in the food, farming and haulage sectors that were all completely avoidable with better planning. 

He says permanent secretaries in particular should have listened to and acted on industry pleas for a more flexible, sector-based immigration policy. “They’ve been lobbying Whitehall for years, and there has just been no willingness to listen constructively.”

It’s not hard to nod along with Black, especially after listening to those poorly advised ministers on the radio. Asked about the resilience of Britain’s supply chains yesterday, Simon Clarke, chief secretary to the Treasury, said he was “confident that we have the resilience that is required,” even though the reverse is obviously true. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said the situation was stabilising: “We’re getting petrol into the forecourts.” He might have added that we’re getting food to babies. Kids to school. Heat to homes. Back to basics. So much for ambition, vision, leadership.

As for the fear, it’s felt by Remainers, especially Labour Remainers, who imagine that if they call Brexit by its name and call it out for what it’s done they’ll be monstered by 17 million Brexiteers on social media and in the polls. 

Maybe, but not in the opinion polls. YouGov’s latest says 58 per cent of Britons think Brexit’s going badly, up 15 percentage points since June, and only 18 per cent (down 7) think it’s going well. 

That’s not the same as saying 58 per cent now think Brexit was a bad idea. They don’t. Polls on this sort of question are tighter, even if in answer to almost all Brexit-related questions asked by the What UK Thinks survey, pro-EU voices now come out ahead. But as Claire Fox reminded a Tortoise ThinkIn this week, 17 million people did vote for Brexit. That doesn’t make them right or smart and it certainly doesn’t mean relitigating Brexit is off limits, any more than revisiting the question of independence is off limits for Scotland. But so far only a small portion of the 17 million have actually changed their minds. That is a big practical obstacle to reversing Brexit, so alternatives have to be found to repair the damage it’s inflicting on the country’s ability to pick crops, distribute food and fuel, get things done and thrive. Because national pride doesn’t put halloumi on the table, or fish fingers come to that.

Small numbers of temporary work visas won’t cut it. They’re like disinviting large numbers of people from a party and then saying they can come after all – to do the clearing up. The offer for HGV drivers is especially unappealing given the UK’s pee-in-a-bottle working conditions and the clampdown on drivers operating as limited companies. Laurence Bolton puts it politely: “You’re an EU driver. You’re holed up back home on the continent. Weather’s a bit hotter, bit nicer, waiting out for Covid, and you’re then looking at us back in the UK and thinking actually now might not be as financially lucrative to come back.”

Boris Johnson will need to be bolder and cleverer. If he isn’t, the unforeseen consequences of the fundamentally irrational step he took to seize the leadership of his party will keep on ambushing his government. The next ambush looks like being an acute shortage of fintech specialists in the City, but there’ll be others.

Sooner or later, Johnson will have to rejoin the single market without admitting it. He will have to call it something else. He will have to bring back freedom of movement by stealth, and this is where my rude retailer’s plea for broad equivalence and a fully modern, fully digitised border comes in. 

Inspired by him, based on the fact that there has not been the time or bandwidth yet for much regulatory divergence between the EU and the UK, and offered here as a public service, the UK government’s new Brexit strategy should be as follows: persuade the EU to recognise the status quo, namely broad equivalence in standards, qualifications, competition law and regulation of financial and other services. Lock it down. Then digitise the border to the fullest extent possible, including a provision for any EU passport holder to acquire an e-work visa simply by tapping in. It will have to be as easy as getting on the Tube. 

The Brexit Spartans will howl, but they will find themselves in a minority and the business leaders who pay their bills will quietly admit it had to be done. The whole of Ireland will heave a sigh of relief. M&S, which yesterday shut its Paris food stores because it could no longer get fresh food to them, will be able to reopen them. Brexit has put Britain in a bit of a hole, and there is only one way out.