Friday, 29 April 2022

Six years of failure

It is now just over six years since the start of the official campaign for the 2016 referendum, years which have transformed and polarized British politics, economics and culture. What wasted years these have been. For whilst Brexit is mainly discussed, including by Brexiters, in terms of whether or not it has been as damaging as the most dire predictions, it has also had a huge, if incalculable, opportunity cost.

Perhaps these years would have been squandered in some different way, but in principle so much might have been achieved but for all the energy and resources Brexit has soaked up. And it is surely the case that, but for hard Brexit fealty being the sole criterion for appointment, many current ministers would never have got anywhere near holding government office. For example, does anyone really think that, without Brexit, we would have Jacob Rees-Mogg lounging affectedly on the front benches and in a position to write his spiteful little notes in the name of ‘government efficiency’? Would we be saddled with a government which, judged overall, a mere 18% of people now think is ‘competent’?

They have certainly been years of failure, and whilst that failure may not all be down to Brexit it is inseparable from it so that, as I’ve argued before, we need to think in terms of the ‘post-Brexit condition’. That’s not because nothing else has happened or will ever happen apart from Brexit, but because Brexit marked a decisive, historic break in national strategy (according to Brexiters, especially) for the better (according to Brexiters, uniquely) and so it is legitimate to define and judge this period, which we are only at the beginning of, in those terms.

In this (even) longer than usual post I’ll look at some aspects of where these years have now led us. It’s a good time to do so, partly because the contrast is so great with all the pre-referendum leave campaign claims, and partly because the last week or so has seen some really quite significant developments in both the economics and politics of Brexit. Anyway, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend ….

A failing national strategy

I wrote recently of the many ways in which the country the Brexiters are creating is going rotten, with so many basic services not working properly, and each week brings fresh reports of what is now in danger of becoming a national calamity. Agriculture faces a growing crisis, with implications for the availability and price of basic foodstuffs, and there is a widespread shortage of both basic and vital medicines leading to a spate of abusive behaviour towards pharmacists. In both cases Brexit is explicitly reported as one significant factor. It’s the aggregate effect of these multiple Brexit harms that defines the post-Brexit condition. To get a sense of their scope, it is as always worth checking the regularly updated Yorkshire Bylines’ Davis Downside Dossier.

At the more macro-level, consumer confidence is at a 50-year low, not least because of inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, whilst the Office for Budget Responsibility expects this year to see the biggest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s. Brexit is certainly in the mix of this, too, because from the moment it happened the vote to leave, largely because of the drop in the value of sterling it caused, had an impact on inflation. So, by June 2018, the vote to leave had already raised consumer prices by 2.9%, costing the average household £870, with a related sharp decline in real incomes (figure 2 of link). Once Brexit actually happened, it introduced further inflationary pressures in terms of labour shortages and higher costs of trading with the EU. The eminent economist Adam Posen this week estimated that 80% of UK inflation is attributable to Brexit.

This week also saw the publication of a major study showing that Brexit has caused a 6% increase in food prices, and of another study which confirms a dramatic fall in the number of trade, especially export, relationships with the EU (what this means in practice is that large numbers of small firms have dropped out). As Posen pungently expressed it, the UK is “running a natural experiment in what happens when you run a trade war on yourself”. The results so far, his data also suggest, show just how damaging it is.

Overall, the latest IMF World Economic Outlook published this month has the UK set to be the slowest-growing G7 economy in 2023 at 1.2% (compared with 2.4% average for advanced economies and 2.3% average for Euro area) and to have higher inflation, at an average of 6.3% over the next two years, than Germany (4.2%), France (2.9%) and Italy (3.9%) as well as the non-EU G7, and higher than the advanced economies average (4.1%) and the Euro area average (3.8%).* In other words, it’s not just Covid, Ukraine, and global energy and supply chain factors, which have affected all countries. Something particular has happened to the UK and it has a name: Brexit. Indeed the IMF’s 2022 country report for the UK identifies Brexit, along with the pandemic, as having “magnified structural challenges” facing the economy. This is why, as other major economies ‘bounce back’ from Covid, the UK does so more slowly.

Brexiters like, notoriously, Michael Gove poured scorn on the IMF and similar bodies during the referendum. However, it’s reasonable to make use of their figures if only because, for months now, Boris Johnson has been trumpeting (and cherry-picking) OECD data to claim that the UK was the fastest-growing G7 economy last year. And whilst I don’t know whether he has explicitly tied this to Brexit (though I wouldn’t be surprised if he has at some point), he most certainly has linked it to the speed of the Covid vaccine roll-out, which he and other ministers have repeatedly, and entirely dishonestly, attributed to Brexit. So if such global economic comparisons are to be made then, with more justification than the government, it’s fair to claim that post-Brexit Britain is failing to deliver its promises.

The Brexiters have no new ideas

What’s most striking about that claim is that it isn’t ‘remainer moaning’. It is pretty much what every Brexiter, from Nigel Farage to David Frost to Iain Duncan Smith has been saying for several months now. They, inevitably, ascribe it to a lack of deregulatory zeal and to the need to press ahead with ambitious trade deals. The problem, to their minds, is not Brexit but that Brexit hasn’t been done properly. But the scope for de-regulation remains elusive.

In some cases, like Solvency II reforms or gene editing regulation, it is complex, time-consuming and, actually, likely to end up in a similar place as would have been the case without Brexit. In many areas, like conformity assessment, regional aid and, most obviously, trade, Brexit actually means whole new swathes of regulation and red tape, sometimes duplicating that of the EU, sometimes restoring that which EU membership had abolished. All of this reflects Brexiters near-complete ignorance of how regulation actually works and why it is necessary. Bluntly, they simply had no idea what they were doing.

In still other cases, like the dismantling of employment rights which the Thatcherite Brexiters undoubtedly hunger for, it may be that Brexit makes deregulation possible, but there is no political mandate for it and little political appeal in it. In that respect, such Brexiters are reaping the consequences of having sold Brexit and won the election with the aid of nativist and, literally, conservative votes. Nor, since it will cost some of them their lives, is it likely to prove popular with voters if the government decides to diverge from new EU standards on road vehicle safety in order to prove an ideological point about ‘freedom from Brussels’.

As for trade deals, they also encounter opposition from the public and, anyway, even the dullest-minded Brexiter (a title for which there is considerable competition, even if the field were restricted solely to those whose surnames begin with ‘B’) must be starting to grasp that they offer no economic salvation.

Thus, faced with a burgeoning economic crisis, this post-Brexit government is bereft of workable ideas. Its flagship policy has proved an economic dud, but it is inherent in the government’s very formation to be unable to admit that, or to produce any policies that might ameliorate it. Having smashed up the old order, all they can do is stare in slack-jawed bemusement at the rubble around them, like a convention of peculiarly vandalistic village idiots who accidentally got control of a wrecking-ball.

To the extent they have any ideas of how to proceed, these go in two contradictory directions. One is just to not implement Brexit so far as possible. This has happened with much of the Northern Ireland Protocol and, most strikingly, in the confirmation this week of the long-trailed fourth postponement of import controls. It’s a remarkable and explicit admission that Britain simply can’t afford the Brexit trade deal that Johnson pronounced a triumph, albeit one carrying its own costs and risks, as I’ve discussed at length in previous posts (e.g. here and here).

Their other idea it is to do the same thing all over again but ‘this time properly’, the latest manifestation being suggestions this week that the government is considering unilaterally abolishing several import tariffs, perhaps especially on food. It’s an idea that goes back to Patrick Minford’s extreme version of ‘true’ Brexit, with horrendous consequences for UK farmers and manufacturers, whilst also giving away one of the main bargaining chips for striking free trade agreements.

And it's no good Brexiters saying that leaving the EU was never about economics. First, both during the referendum and since they repeatedly made claims that it would be economically beneficial, and at the very least not harmful, hence all the effort put into the Project Fear rebuttal line. Second, although at one level describable (and dismissible) as ‘just economics’, when people can’t feed their families and are fighting to get medicines it is more than that.

Dangerous political trickery

Meanwhile, the astonishingly dangerous political trick the government used to ‘get Brexit done’ has blown up in its face. That, of course, was agreeing to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) which it is clear the government never intended to honour, and which it sold to its MPs as a supposedly temporary measure. Yet, at the very same time, it was sold to the electorate as part of the ’oven-ready deal’ which would put an end to all the boring Brexit wrangling. Worse still, it was signed as an international treaty with the EU, which certainly didn’t regard it as temporary, any more than does the US.

This was done quite knowingly and entirely cynically, and it’s very difficult to think of any equivalent trickery in modern British political history in terms of that combination of national and international dishonesty. Not only was it dishonest, it was actually – I don’t use this word casually – wicked in that the patsy in this trick was, and is, the people of Northern Ireland and the fragile politics of their hard-won peace. This makes David Frost’s handwringing about that fragility in a repellently self-serving and disgracefully misleading speech about the Protocol this week all the more nauseating (alas, no space here to pull it apart, but see some thoughts from me and from Gavin Barwell, formerly Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, and the highly revealing and unusual comments from a former senior civil servant which clearly contradict some of Frost’s key claims).

What Frost and Johnson so wickedly did in 2019 created a carbuncle that has suppurated ever since. If there has so far been little domestic political price to pay for this, it is only because relatively few British voters outside Northern Ireland really understand or care about it. That’s especially so of English voters, who are the Tory Party’s main concern (£). It has also created less international drama than it might have done because the EU, perhaps partly because it is less careless than Johnson and the Brexiters about Northern Ireland’s peace, perhaps from uncertainty about how to proceed with its new ‘neighbour from hell’, has trodden a very soft path so far. Just how soft can be seen via the thought experiment of imagining the outrage with which the UK, and especially Brexiters, would have reacted if the EU had announced immediately after signing the Withdrawal Agreement that it had never had any intention of being bound by one of its key provisions.

Thus of the three audiences for this confidence trick – apathetic voters, a cautious EU, and Brexiter Tory MPs – it is the latter who have been most vocal in insisting that the government keep to its promise to them, that of treating the NIP as temporary. Northern Irish unionist politicians have also done so, of course, but, unlike Tory MPs, they never pretended to support the deal. Despite his large majority, Johnson has been vulnerable from the outset to ERG obduracy, and as his hold on office gets ever more shaky that increases. And under any conceivable replacement their power will persist. “So,” as RTE’s Tony Connelly concludes his review of the current situation, “nearly six years after the Brexit referendum, the EU and Northern Ireland remain hostage to Tory Party machinations”.

Northern Ireland: a litany of failure

The essence of this current, or at least emerging, situation is, as Connelly explains, the widespread report that the British government is devising a new way to renege on the NIP, or at least the threat of doing so in order to blackmail the EU into allowing it to renege. Rather than continue with the repeated threats to ‘invoke Article 16’, this new approach would amend UK law so as to disapply the NIP. In particular, it is reported by Connelly and others that the government is considering repealing Section 7a of the EU Withdrawal Act, the legislation that enshrines the Protocol into domestic law, a course of action which is also being urged by the Brexit Ultra commentariat (£).

The roots of this go all the way back to the total failure of Brexiters to understand or accept the implications for Northern Ireland of, at least, hard Brexit. I’ve written about that many times, and summarized some of the main issues on a standalone page on this blog. But its more proximate root – and this is an important point – is that the new approach demonstrates the abject failure of the old one. That is to say, all the threats of using Article 16, which started in January 2021, only weeks after the NIP came into operation (and before the aborted EU threat to do so, since used as a justification), have now been exposed as nonsensical. Having treated Article 16 as if it were some kind of route to disapplying or unilaterally rewriting the Protocol, something all credible experts agreed was untrue, the government seems to finally have understood this basic fact.

Along the lines of my previous post, this could be called a ‘we told you so’ moment although, also in line with that post, the government is not learning from its mistakes but compounding them by proposing an even more absurd policy. In fact, in its essence, this new approach relies upon the idea which also informed the eventually aborted illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill as well as one of the suggestions about how Article 16 could be used for the specific purpose (£) of ending ECJ involvement in the Protocol.

As discussed at that time at length by Mark Elliott, Professor of Public Law at Cambridge University, this underlying idea is the “facile” one, endorsed by the Attorney General and arch-Brexiter Suella Braverman, that the sovereignty of the UK parliament means that it can pass laws that somehow trump international law and treaty obligations. (Elliott also explained this at the time of the Internal Market Bill proposals, in an elegant essay which eviscerates the Brexiters’ entire concept of sovereignty.)

It’s not necessary to be an eminent lawyer, or even a lawyer, to see that this is nonsense: if it were true, no international agreement would have any legal standing at all. However, it seems clear that it is what informs the government’s thinking because when the new approach was first hinted at, by Jacob Rees-Mogg at the EU Scrutiny Committee a couple of weeks ago, he made exactly the point that the UK had the “sovereign right” to override the Protocol (£). (In passing, it is shocking that literally none of the Labour members of the committee turned up to this meeting, nor did the official SNP member, which is part of the wider story, for which I’ve no space here, of Labour’s near silence about the damage of Brexit.)

In any case, apart from its legal fatuity, it’s politically naïve. Domestically, there is bound to be substantial opposition from the House of Lords, and perhaps some Tory MPs, as there was to the Internal Market Bill clauses. Even more importantly, the international repercussions will be huge. It’s not only a matter of the non-trivial damage to the UK’s reputation. There is also the potential, at least eventually, to end up with a trade war with the EU (£) and diplomatic rupture with the US. Already the UK’s conduct over the NIP is costing it dear in terms of the continuing refusal of the EU to ratify UK membership of the Horizon Europe science funding programme in retaliation.

It is especially irresponsible in the context of the Ukraine War, playing into Putin’s hands by undermining the Western alliance against him. The government’s thinking seems to be that the war will actually make the EU more likely to yield to this new threat. It’s a shabby idea in itself, relying on others to put up with our behaviour because, unlike us, they are too responsible to give succour to Putin. And it may not be realistic, anyway. It seems to rely on the government’s illusion that it is somehow the leader of the Western alliance, whereas from an EU perspective the UK is an important, but secondary, player to the primary EU-US-NATO. Keeping the UK sweet by indulging a new tantrum probably won’t be a priority, especially after all the years of British antagonism and dishonesty. Moreover, it’s entirely inconsistent with Johnson’s reported desire (£) to “re-set” relations with France following Macron’s election victory this week.

Trapped in lies and denial

It remains to be seen whether the government is going to push ahead with this new approach – the consensus of knowledgeable commentators seems to be that it will, but that nothing will happen until after the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. But, as with the latest postponement of import controls and the possible continuation of accepting the CE conformity assessment mark (ludicrously described in the Express this week as a ‘Brexit masterstroke’), the continuing ructions over implementing the NIP show the depths of the folly of Brexit in general, and the Brexit the government chose to agree to in particular.

What all three, and much else in the Brexit saga, share is a bull-headed denial of what hard Brexit means for customs and regulatory borders, and what they in turn mean for Northern Ireland, allied to a bone-headed concept of sovereignty. And so it goes on, year after year after wretched year. All the fantasies, lies and denials that permeated the dreadful referendum campaign six long years ago are still running into the rock of the realities of international trade and international relations. The government has no solutions because it has never been a government in any real sense of the term, just a vehicle for precisely the fantasies and denials of that campaign.

In consequence, its responses to the multiple and growing crises it has created veer between the ludicrous and the contemptible, dragging a bitterly divided country, the clear majority of which thinks Brexit was a mistake, ever deeper into poverty, decline, misery and disrepute.


*Barely, if at all, reported, perhaps because balance of payments scarcely features in UK political discourse any more, are the IMF’s latest projections for the current account balance (Table A10, p.153). Expressed as a percentage of GDP the UK deficit in 2021 was -2.6% with a forecast of -5.5% in 2022, then -4.8% in 2023 (advanced economy averages -0.7%, -0.1% and 0% respectively). It’s worth recalling the furore caused before the referendum when the then Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, warned of his concern that Brexit could test the UK’s reliance on “the kindness of strangers” to fund its current account deficit. At that time, the UK deficit was understood to be -3.7% (now adjusted to -3.6%) considered high by international standards (the advanced economy average was a surplus of +1%).

Friday, 22 April 2022

Sometimes, 'we told you so' is all that can be said

I don’t have time this week for my normal long post, but in any case last Friday's largely continues to cover the current political situation, dominated as it is by Boris Johnson’s lawbreaking, lying, and refusal to resign over them. It is a scandal described by the eminent, and generally measured, political historian Professor Lord Hennessy as “the most severe constitutional crisis involving a Prime Minister” that he can remember, with Johnson “the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life”. Yet neither the Tory MPs and party members who made him their leader, nor the voters who elected him, can say that they were not told what he would be like.

It is, as ever, worth recalling that Johnson and Brexit are as inseparable as a dog and its vomit. Yet even if the Prime Minister ends up being toppled by Partygate that will only remove the dog from the metaphor. That aside, this week’s Brexit news has been a case of fresh reports of the ongoing slow puncture effect so long warned of. Yet another firm departing Britain for the EU, this one the largest employer in leave-voting Newark, with the loss of 110 jobs. The realisation that EU regional development funds won’t be fully replaced, this time in leave-voting Wales. The realisation, reported in the leave-supporting Telegraph, of the high cost of post-Brexit pet passports (£). A Kent MP bemoaning the weeks of traffic chaos in her county, as if it had nothing to do with the Brexit trade agreement she voted for.

Warnings become facts

It’s a gradual accumulation of harms, each contributing a little more to the ‘rot’ discussed in my previous post (the rot motif also featured prominently in the media last weekend [e.g. here and here], suggesting I’m not alone in detecting the stench). As that accumulation proceeds we are seeing the warnings of Project Fear turn remorselessly into established fact.

One story this week provides a particular illustration of that process. It concerns the number of British firms setting up distribution hubs in the Netherlands, especially, in order to service the EU market (£). This enables them to avoid delays and other costs, such as multiple VAT registrations, but of course also impacts negatively on employment located and taxes paid within Britain. The reason this story is interesting is not because it is news, so much as because it isn’t. That’s to say, as the report makes clear, this shift has been under way since 2017 and was in part a consequence of all of the uncertainty about what the future trading relationship would be, as well as, later, a response to what it actually turned out to be.

The point is that it’s only now that it’s possible to see the scale of what has happened. In 2017 and subsequently commentators, including me in my own small way, were talking of how there would be such business decisions going on, unreported and unknown outside of the companies themselves, which would, indeed, be slowly damaging the UK economy. But that could be dismissed as alarmism or speculation in the absence of publicly available information, though even without such information it was obvious to anyone with a cursory understanding that it must be happening. Now we can see that it was the case.

Control of our borders: trouble ahead

Versions of this are going to go on happening for years as more and more of the effects of Brexit come to light though, just as the warnings were dismissed as speculation, when they come true it will be dismissed as ancient history. This is likely to be true of the heavily-trailed decision, reported with growing certainty this week, to yet again postpone the introduction of UK import controls, which now seems to be imminent.

Whilst being, preposterously, talked of by Jacob Rees-Mogg as if it is a benefit of Brexit to be able to ‘decide our own control system’, the reality is that the government has been forced to realise that the country simply cannot afford the consequences of the form of Brexit it chose, negotiated and celebrated. So, at least on those aspects of its implementation that the government controls, it seeks to avoid those costs without actually admitting to its errors or acknowledging that the warnings about them were true.

However, as I explained in a recent post, all this does is to create a new set of costs and risks, including those of a human or animal health scandal. As with the distribution hubs issue, at the moment that can be dismissed as speculation and scaremongering. If and when it happens it will be too late. So whilst ‘we told you so’ is one of the least appetising of personal or political reactions, it is one the Brexiters have forced upon those of us who warned, over and over again, what the consequences of all their decisions would be. What else are we supposed to say? What else can we say? It’s not – for me at least – said with any relish, just with resignation.

Control of our borders: contradictory promises

In a somewhat similar way, the news that there has been a huge rise in post-Brexit immigration from non-EU countries (£) is hardly likely to be welcome to at least one significant swathe of leave voters. Certainly, despite the Express’s headlining of the story as being one of ‘Brexit Britain showing its power’, its readers’ comments evince little enthusiasm for this development. But those paying attention during the referendum campaign would have noticed that voters were being given contradictory messages, which couldn’t all be true.

The loudest one, no doubt, was that Brexit would reduce or even end immigration. In a notorious vox pop, one voter said he voted leave “to stop Muslims coming into the country”. But ethnic minorities from non-EU countries were being promised easier rules for their relatives and ‘globalist’ Brexiters were saying, if not very loudly until the day after the referendum, that, overall, Brexit might very well mean higher net migration.

Personally, I think the news on immigration is welcome and necessary, in and of itself. However, it is crucial to recognize that ‘migration’ and ‘freedom of movement of people’ are very different things, with the latter, which has been lost, very much preferable. It is preferable economically, because it makes it easier and far less bureaucratic to employ workers from overseas. It is preferable socially, in enabling an easy, flexible and genuine intermingling of families and cultures compared with a system based of time-limited work visas and points. And, much forgotten in the whole discussion, freedom of movement was a right that British people also had and have now lost, and with no compensatory easing of their ability to move to non-EU countries.

So, once again, as the realities of Brexit gradually emerge, so too does it emerge that pretty much no-one – leave or remain voters alike – is getting what they wanted or were promised. Whose fault is that? Not really those who voted to leave, and obviously not those who voted to remain. Certainly not those who warned as strenuously as possible of what would happen if we left. That only leaves those who made the false promises, those who insisted that Brexit must be done in the form it has been, and those who negotiated that Brexit. There are plenty of names on that list, but Johnson’s is at the top.

Still lying, still not learning

That is why the present debate, although it is about his refusal to take responsibility for breaking Covid rules and his lies about having done so, stands as a proxy for a much bigger one. When will he and his many adjutants take responsibility for their lies about Brexit? If ever they do, there will be no need and little force in saying ‘we told you so’. Brexit might instead become a shared problem to be solved, a national error to be mitigated and, even, corrected. Until they do, Brexit remains their responsibility, their mess, their guilt, their shame, and their legacy.

Certainly that is the situation now, as they continue to double down on the dishonesty. This week, Rees-Mogg, in his trademark tones of contemptuous yet ill-informed arrogance, again suggested that the government is planning to break the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, something seemingly confirmed by subsequent reports (£). Whilst noting the widespread comment that the government had been told that signing up to it meant being bound by it – in other words, that ‘we told you so’ – he shrugged this off as “absolute nonsense”.

Instead, he advanced the bogus rationale that the government had only signed it in the expectation that it “would” be changed. That would be an absurd enough thing to say of an international treaty in itself, but in the very same breath Rees-Mogg spoke, correctly, of the fact that the Protocol has provisions such that it “could” be changed. There’s obviously all the difference in the world between ‘would be’ and ‘could be’, and what makes his dishonesty, like Johnson’s, all the more grotesque is that it is so brazen.

Equally grotesque is the refusal to learn from past mistakes. In this case, these include the profound damage to the UK’s reputation done by the previous flagrant threat to illegally renege on the Protocol in the Internal Market Bill in 2019, and by the probably illegal unilateral extension of the Protocol grace periods in 2021. The Brexiters were warned of the damage, pressed ahead anyway, and the damage was done. To continue on the same path now is all the more irresponsible given that the Ukraine War makes international solidarity and co-operation so crucial.

All that can be done is warn them, yet again, of their impending folly. Sir Jonathan Jones, who was Head of the Government Legal Service until he resigned over the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill, has done just that over Rees-Mogg’s latest threat (£). Will such warnings make a difference? Very likely not. In which case, once the next bit of damage is done, there will be nothing else to say except, once again, ‘we told you so’.

Brexiters hold the key

It’s true that ‘we told you so’ gets us nowhere but, until the Brexiters – by which I mean, as always, the leading advocates rather than ordinary leave voters - admit that ‘you told us so’, it’s all that can be said. If they ever make such an admission then, as with individual leave voters who regret their choice, there can and must be generosity of spirit. Then, there can be soothing words about how Brexiters were well-intentioned, and meant for the best. But until then there’s no point being mealy-mouthed: the lies of Brexiters have been totally discredited.

As a country, we can’t and won’t ‘move on’ until there’s been an honest reckoning of where we are and how we got here. Only Brexiters can get us to that point, and if an admission of their failure is too much to realistically expect then at least a withdrawal into silence and out of public life might suffice. But, as with Johnson, there is no sign whatsoever of them doing so, perhaps because, as with Johnson, they are bereft of both honour and shame.

Friday, 15 April 2022

Post-Brexit Britain is going rotten

The refusal of Boris Johnson to resign, despite being the first sitting Prime Minister ever to have broken the law and despite all the lies he has told about having done so, is shocking, but not surprising to even the tiniest degree. Nor is the spectacle of his ministers wheeling out embarrassingly feeble defences of this situation as if they have no shame or, more precisely, because they have no shame. Johnson may yet be unseated, perhaps by further penalties from the police showing he has been guilty of multiple breaches of the Covid laws, but he will cling on by his fingernails if he can.

If there are no surprises in this, it is partly because of Johnson’s complete lack of moral character but also because it is both symptomatic and symbolic of the condition of post-Brexit Britain. Increasingly, it’s necessary to speak of this as a ‘condition’ because as time goes by what is at stake is a diffuse and generalized climate rather than simply specific damages caused directly and wholly, or even indirectly and partly, by Brexit. The word ‘condition’ is also apposite since it carries connotations of prolonged and chronic illness: ‘long Brexit’, so to speak.

Thus the scandal of Johnson’s current conduct is inseparable from his conduct during the referendum campaign and in the ‘delivery’ of Brexit, making it ironic that, for some, his delivery of Brexit excuses his current conduct (the more so as the most committed Brexiters still insist that he delivered ‘Brexit in name only’). I have written at length before about how Partygate and Brexit are interconnected and, within that, the particular role of ‘anti-ruleism’ in explaining this. Without repeating all of that analysis, suffice to say that it connects events as disparate as the endless repetition of the ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ lie despite being told by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that it was a clear misuse of statistics, the illegal prorogation of parliament, and the delay in and antipathy toward introducing Covid ‘restrictions’. And whilst Johnson is a key figure in this, it is not fundamentally about him. Its roots lie in the populism and libertarianism of the Brexit Ultras within and outside of the Conservative Party.

Exploring the post-Brexit condition

From this point of view, separating Brexit from other political and public events, especially the pandemic, is complicated, and of course this complication is used by Brexiters to deny or conceal the effects of Brexit. Typically, they deride discussion of these effects as ‘Brexit Derangement Syndrome’ (£), and it’s worth reflecting on what that derision implies. Presumably, Brexiters believe that leaving the EU will make long-term differences to the UK. If not, then why bother to leave? But, if so, then why would it be deranged to discuss the effects? The obvious answer is because they have been so dire that they discredit the decision to leave.

Within this, there are two slightly different issues. The most obvious is that of recognizing that almost all events have more than one cause. The significant and still ongoing queues at Dover and disruption at airports are current examples. As discussed in last week’s post, it’s justifiable to say that some of this is nothing to do with Brexit (e.g. Easter holidays), some of it is directly but only partly due to Brexit (e.g. staff shortages), some of it is indirectly and only partly to do with Brexit (e.g. P&O ferries not running), some of it is indirectly but wholly to do with Brexit (e.g. breakdown of the IT systems now needed), and some of it is directly and wholly due to Brexit (e.g. existence of new border processes). The Brexiter trick here – enabled by media quietude – is to ignore, deny or downplay the Brexit aspect and, in parallel, to dismiss attention to it by reference (sometimes, it has to be said, accurate reference) to those ‘remainers’ who wrongly ascribe the problems directly and entirely to Brexit.

The second, and perhaps less obvious, issue is that whilst most events have multiple causes it does not follow that those causes themselves are independent of each other. Covid is again the most important example. It arrived just as the UK left the EU and whilst the terms of future trade were just beginning to be negotiated. This means that, just as every country in the world had Covid in its own way, affected by its own particular circumstances, the way the UK had it was in the particular and unique circumstances of Brexit. Our Covid is ‘Brexit Covid’.

Brexit Covid

In practical terms this had all sorts of effects. For example, Covid exacerbated the issue of staff shortages, as some EU nationals were leaving because of Brexit. It also meant that when EU nationals returned to their home countries because of Covid (as they very well might have done regardless of Brexit), it is now not possible for them to return if they don’t have settled status. It also meant that the lorry queues now, which are reported to be making EU drivers reluctant to take on journeys to the UK (£), come on top of the recent memory of the Covid-related lorry queues at the end of 2020 when drivers also spoke of not coming to the UK again.

Looked at from a different direction, the fact that the Brexit trade negotiations took place during the pandemic inflected them in particular ways, not least because at certain times key actors were ill, and because much of the negotiation had to take place virtually, which would not otherwise have been the case. Similarly, the hostility of the Brexiters, including Johnson, to any extension at all to the transition period, a hostility which pre-dated the pandemic, led to a refusal to do so despite the pandemic. With more time, a more comprehensive agreement might have been reached. Or, for that matter, had it not been for the pressure of Covid, perhaps the outcome would have been ‘no deal’. Then, when the deal was in place and the transition period ended, the economic punch of Brexit was immediate, landing on the bruise of the ongoing pandemic and reducing our economic resilience to its effects in a way no other country experienced.

By definition, we don’t know, certainly not completely, what difference it made that Covid arrived when Brexit was happening. My point is just that Brexit and Covid interacted, and for that reason cannot necessarily be treated as two independent factors. Certainly it is the case the UK’s response to Covid, up to and very much including the current policy of effectively pretending the pandemic is over, and not making any significant attempt to handle its ongoing impacts such as those of Long Covid, has been inextricably intertwined with Brexit politics. The crossover of membership between the influential Brexit Ultras’ ERG and the anti-restrictions, anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs is a prime example. So is the more general relationship, well beyond the Tory Party, between anti-lockdown, and in some cases even anti-vaccination, sentiment and Brexiter populists like Nigel Farage and Laurence Fox.

It is in these senses that the UK has had ‘Brexit Covid’, which forms part of the post-Brexit condition of the country.

A country going rotten

It is a country which is going metaphorically and literally rotten. Literally rotten, with crops lying unharvested in fields. That has been happening since at least 2019 because of labour shortages (which in this case are especially closely linked to Brexit), is still happening now, and risks permanent damage to UK farming. It is also happening because of the post-Brexit barrier to trade with the EU.  Meat and fish are becoming unsaleable as they sit for hours in traffic jams of lorries. Some of it doesn’t even get that far: at least 40,000 healthy pigs have been culled for lack of butchers and meat processors. These are not ‘teething troubles’: the transition period ended over a year ago.

Staff shortages, whether due to Brexit or Covid, are now endemic and are contributing to a metaphorical rottenness in which quite basic things are becoming difficult or impossible to do. They are part of the reason for the crisis in the NHS, to take the most high-profile example. But it is the same across the board. There aren’t enough border agency staff, there aren’t enough staff to run buses or to serve meals in restaurants or to construct buildings. Nor has the HGV driver shortage, so much in the news last year, gone away. It would be possible to provide any number of examples, but almost everyone is surely now beginning to notice how many of the things we used to take for granted just don’t work properly any more. Raising wages isn’t the answer: it may pull staff into one sector, but only at the expense of another, and in the absence of productivity increases it only creates inflation which more than negates the wages rises anyway.

It's perfectly true to say that this isn’t just happening in the UK. But it is happening in a particular way in the UK because Brexit is unique to the UK and because our Covid is Brexit Covid. It would be different if we hadn’t ended freedom of movement of people and hadn’t introduced new barriers to trade. It might have been different if we hadn’t, at least in England, dispensed too early  with all Covid protections and scrapped Covid sick pay provisions. It would also be easier to deal with if we had a less restrictive post-Brexit immigration policy as regards the skill groups and earnings levels required, and did not treat those immigrants who are admitted in such inhumane ways. Indeed a combination of staff shortages and Brexity suspicion accounts for the deplorable slowness of the visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees.

It's also true to say that many of the UK’s problems, including labour shortages and the provision of core services pre-date both Brexit and Covid. There are longstanding workforce issues arising from our ageing demographics and from the paucity of our education and training systems. There are also perennial problems of a public service model built upon outsourcing to a small number of scandal-ridden firms which persistently fail to deliver, and upon perpetual re-organizations of the public sector, such as the disastrous Lansley reforms to the NHS, often linked with failed IT projects.

But, again, the point is that Brexit and Brexit Covid come on top of, and exacerbate, these problems. So, now, there are widely reported delays in such things as driving licence renewals, passport renewals and the granting of probate on Wills. Most, if not all, such cases reflect a mix of pre-existing problems, Brexit and Brexit Covid. It’s the layering of one factor on top of the other – with Brexit, uniquely, the entirely self-inflicted and avoidable factor – which is rotting our country away.

The great resignation

I am pretty sure that something like this is how we should understand the significant increases in economic inactivity over the last two years amongst the over-50s reported this week by the Resolution Foundation. This is partly driven by the increasing uptake of early retirement, itself an aspect of the more general phenomenon now widely called ‘the great resignation’. The rise in economic inactivity is reported as part of the ‘permanent scarring effect of the pandemic’, and is clearly driven in part by Long Covid although it started to be in evidence, according to ONS data, from the very beginning of the pandemic.

My purely personal impression is that ever since the referendum result there has been a significant shift in attitude amongst my peer group of – why not admit it? – those who Brexiters call the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’, which has exacerbated pre-existing problems of workplace stress and then been exacerbated by Covid and also by the post-Brexit culture wars waged against them. That shift has been to disengage from a country which has, effectively, ‘cancelled’ half its population for being remainers, with a special contempt reserved for ‘university-educated remainers’ (and indeed the university educated were, at 57% of graduates rising to 64% of those with a higher degree, disproportionately remain voters).

I am convinced that as a result many of those who can do so are ‘giving up’ work because, especially if work is central to how they participate in society, they are ‘giving up on’ post-Brexit Britain, even if not necessarily emigrating. Why should you contribute to a country which despises you, whether by sneering at your ‘wokeness’ and doing almost everything possible to ‘trigger’ you, or saying ‘f*** business’ and doing almost everything possible to ensure it is happens? It obviously takes time for this to feed through into enacting early retirement decisions so my strong sense is that what we are seeing now grows to some degree from this sense of alienation.

I stress that this is far more impressionistic than the claims I usually make on this blog but it is, at the least, compatible with the data on growing economic inactivity. I think it applies to people across the left-right political spectrum, and especially to professionals (in particular those in the public sector) and to small business owner-managers (in particular those which trade with the EU), if only because they are more likely to be able to afford to take early retirement than others who are alienated by the post-Brexit condition.

Again, it’s possible to see similar trends of early retirement (and the wider changes of the great resignation) in other countries, including the US, so Brexit isn’t the only factor, but, for the UK, it is an additional one. It is contributing to a stripping out of experience and expertise which can only, in turn, hasten the way in which the country is rotting away. For, even if Brexit is not in any part of the reason, it is a fact that, to take an important example, there are sharp rises in GPs taking early retirement and warnings of a “mass exodus” within the next five years. More generally, the Labour Force Survey shows that the largest numbers taking early retirement are “skilled professionals” and “associate professionals” (£). It’s worth recalling in this context that some 57% of social class AB (i.e. professionals and managers) voted remain in the 2016 referendum.

The overall picture

Taken together, this picture of the post-Brexit condition is an alarming one. Some of what is happening is now pretty much beyond doubt, and it is also pretty much beyond doubt that it is happening because of Brexit. That applies to the decline in trade in goods and, it is increasingly clear, trade in services. In other cases, such as labour and skills shortages, Brexit is undeniably one factor. But as I have stressed in this post, even where, as is often the case, Covid is the other main factor, the UK experience of Covid is itself inflected by Brexit to some degree.

Other things, such as the contribution of Brexit to rising levels of early retirement are, as I’ve acknowledged, far more speculative. However, in the context of labour shortages which are in part because of Brexit, the rises in economic inactivity, including early retirement, form part of the post-Brexit condition of the country even if it is denied that they are in any way caused by Brexit. In other words, it might not matter so much that so many skilled workers are taking early retirement if there were not also skill shortages because of Brexit.

Against this could be put the benefits of Brexit if there were any significant examples, but there aren’t. Those which have been claimed are either very limited, yet to materialize, or simply nothing to do with Brexit at all. The latter includes the main and most common claim of a Brexit benefit, namely the vaccine roll out and, more recently, the nonsensical suggestion that it has allowed Britain to ‘lead on Ukraine’ (nonsensical in that, even if it were true we have led, we’ve done nothing that required Brexit). In fact, most justifications of Brexit now just take the form of claiming that it has been less damaging than some of the most dire predictions (£), or that it will deliver its benefits at some vague point in the future.

This, coming on top of the many pre-existing problems the country had, ranging from things like the endless failures of public sector management through to perennially weak productivity, is leading to our country rotting away under our noses. Basic services no longer work properly, whole industries are in crisis. Even the long-term viability of the union of all four constituent countries is in doubt, whilst the Northern Ireland peace process has been seriously strained. And, entirely predictably, pre-referendum promises to match EU structural funds for regional development are being broken (£).

The architects of the post-Brexit rot

Meanwhile, not additional to, but inseparable from, this malaise, our political institutions are in a parlous state. Scandals abound, whilst authoritarianism advances and democratic rights are being trimmed. Which brings us back to Johnson’s refusal to resign, aided and abetted by his party’s refusal to make him. This latest example of moral rot symbolizes a whole country going rotten, its entire national strategy now founded on the lies, delusions and fantasies of Brexit. Johnson is both the foremost and yet the least important manifestation of that rot.

For whilst it is a cliché that the ‘fish rots from the head’, Johnson’s departure would not in itself improve things. The rot has now gone too deeply into the body politic, because it doesn’t just come from Johnson’s opportunistic moral vacuum. It comes from Nigel Farage’s blokey racism, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s faux-patrician sanctimony, Gisela Stuart’s earnest spitefulness, Michael Gove’s oily sophistry. From the decades of screaming tabloid headlines about immigration, and the lachrymose self-pity of suburban curtain-twitchers who ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’. From the belligerent nationalism of obese thugs and blue-blazered golf club bores who can’t forget the war they don’t actually remember. From contrarian would-be intellectuals who can’t forgive being ignored by real academics and from free-market think tankers who have none of the knowledge of real business people. From dead-eyed Hedge Fund managers gloating over profits to be made and cold-eyed neo-Marxists dreaming of utopias to come.   

From the rot created by this diverse coalition – which diversity also means that those who confidently announce that ‘Brexit was always all about’ any one thing are always wrong - a foul miasma now emanates. Those who complain of the stench are denounced as deranged, or dismissed as obsessed. They are told they must ‘move on’ and ‘get behind Brexit’, and told it most loudly by those who equally loudly insist that Brexit has been betrayed. The rot will only have a chance of being stopped when enough people agree that Brexit has in fact failed, even if they continue to disagree about why. But, by then, there may not be much left untainted.


I said last week that there wouldn’t be a post today unless something significant happened …. Johnson’s now proven law-breaking qualifies as that.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Peek-a-boo Brexit

A few weeks ago, when it was revealed that the government does not keep records on delays and lorry queues at Dover, I remarked in passing that it was like babies playing peek-a-boo. Not realising that things exist even when they can’t see them, they get immense amusement from the sudden appearance of that which had previously been hidden from view. That’s understandably great fun for people in the very early stages of cognitive development, but few would think it a satisfactory basis for public policy. Yet in many ways it is almost a defining characteristic of Brexit, which from the outset has relied upon keeping the complex realities of Brexit out of sight, as if under the impression that they thereby cease to exist.

Travel chaos

That said, unlike peek-a-boo, when Brexit realities come unavoidably into view they are hardly a source of amusement. So it is with the massive queues and disruptions at Dover last weekend and throughout the week, and at several airports, as people try to take Easter holidays. Of course, some of this is nothing to do with Brexit. Much of it, especially at airports, is to do with Covid causing staff shortages – although the government’s current Covid policy could also be characterised as one of imagining the problem doesn’t exist if you don’t look at it.

However, a contributory factor to staff shortages is the end of freedom of movement of people. That is having effects across the service sector, in particular, and airlines aren’t exempt. They also face additional problems in terms of the end of mutual recognition of qualifications of pilots and maintenance engineers. Meanwhile, holidaymakers arriving at popular destinations, such as Spain, face longer passport queues which are certainly because of Brexit. Lurking beyond these immediate difficulties lies a swathe of regulatory issues which were masked by the pandemic but are now beginning to emerge. These, and many other things, such as projected changes to aviation consumer policy, will continue to play out in the months and years to come.

So far as Dover is concerned, throughout the week Brexiters like David Frost (in an article so feeble that this bogus point was actually the best he made) have predictably been suggesting the problems are all due to the lack of P&O ferries in service. That’s clearly a big factor, but in itself it is partly related to Brexit. The decision to sack staff was partly because of the negative impact of Brexit on cross-channel trade, and the poor quality of the replacement crews then had knock-on effects on operations. In any case what is crucial is that ever since the end of the transition period there has been an increase in jams of freight lorries which is directly attributable to the new checks required by Brexit. These have become the new normal for Dover (and, to an extent, other ferry ports), with ripple effects causing chaos across Kent.

It is the addition of extra pressure to this already high base which has led to the current situation. That pressure includes the P&O issue, the large volumes of holiday passenger traffic, and the current problems with the IT system for the customs checks, themselves a result of Brexit.

Complex systems are vulnerable to small changes

Partly because space is so restricted at the Port of Dover, it takes an average of three minutes more for a vehicle to clear the border than it did before Brexit. It sounds like nothing, but the margins are very tight. A video from the Financial Times (the context is out of date, but it is a good illustration of the point) shows graphically how adding two minutes at the border yields a 17-mile queue back to Ashford, whilst an extra eight minutes takes it right back to the Dartford Crossing. Even with the mitigations that have been created since that film was made, such as lorry parks, it’s easy to see how the slightest extra delay at the border can have a huge effect upstream.

Thinking of it in these terms is also useful for understanding the effects of Brexit changes more generally. These effects can be extremely large even if the change in question is quite small. This also means that, even where an event has many causes, and even if Brexit is one of the smaller of them, when systems are already running to very tight schedules, or at close to full capacity, that small extra part that is attributable to Brexit can tip those systems over their breaking point.

In this sense, attempts by Brexiters to either pretend that Brexit effects don’t exist, or that they are very minor compared with other factors, are an exercise in reality-avoidance. Just as I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that the overall economic effect of Brexit is like a slow puncture, so, in relation to all sorts of mundane activities, it acts as an extra burden. That extra burden can make what used to be easy difficult (taking a pet on holiday to the EU, say), or what used to be difficult close to impossible (small-scale exporting of goods to the EU, say). So our lives get more curtailed, and poorer in both economic and non-economic ways.

The problem of import controls

It's undoubtedly the spectre of border queues and damage to trade which accounts for reports that the government is considering further delaying, or even abandoning, the planned introduction of full Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) import controls on goods from the EU. As discussed last week, this is an aspect of the Brexit government’s ‘admission-yet-denial’ of Brexit damage. So whilst Brexiters will not publicly admit that, for example, the current travel chaos is in any way due to Brexit, they do periodically, at some level, realise that ignoring the growing problems of Brexit does not make them go away.

The particular difficulties of import controls are, first, that whenever they get introduced they will mean extra costs, estimated at £1 billion a year, meaning that products are liable to become more expensive, which is a particular problem given the cost-of-living crisis, and/or to be less widely available, leading to shortages in shops. They also mean more checks, which causes more delays, and this is compounded by the fact that because of the rushed – effectively, non-existent – transition period, which was the UK’s choice, Border Control Posts and other necessary facilities aren’t yet ready.

There is also the familiar Brexit-related problem of staff shortages, which a Select Committee report just this week found to be acute across the farming and food sectors. This is especially so in the veterinary profession, crucial to SPS checks, which has long been heavily reliant upon EU staff. The result of Brexit has been to reduce the number of new EU-trained registrants by two-thirds, creating a “workforce crisis” according to the British Veterinary Association (BVA). In abattoirs, an astonishing 90% of the vets who were in charge of official controls before Brexit were from (the rest of) the EU. The government has been warned about this since at least 2017, but, as with so many other warnings about Brexit, the approach has been to act as if by ignoring or dismissing problems they will cease to exist. But now – peek-a-boo! – they are in plain sight.

Why import controls can’t just be wished away

It might perhaps be thought that a delay, or even permanent non-implementation, doesn’t really matter. Isn’t it, even, a welcome sign of realism? The difficulty, though, is that if import controls are not introduced that only serves to ignore another reality which will not go away, namely the problems which import controls exist to avoid. As regards the next tranche of SPS controls due to be introduced on 1 July this means risks to animal health and food safety. If, yet again, the decision is to avoid facing up to the problem of introducing these controls then, in due course, the problem of not having them will itself come into plain sight. This could take the form of outbreaks of animal diseases that will damage the livelihoods of farmers and others (recall the widespread suffering caused by the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak) or infected food leading to human diseases and, potentially, deaths.

It might also be thought that there is no more reason why this should happen than it did before Brexit. There were no import controls then, and it is the same goods or livestock being imported to the same standards, so why should it cause any new problems now?  It’s a legitimate question in itself, although in some cases, at least, it’s just a version of the familiar Brexiter fallacy that, somehow, nothing really has to change as a result of leaving – or, if it does, it’s only because of the EU punitively imposing third country controls. Britain, Jacob Rees-Mogg apparently thinks, need not do the same (in the link he’s talking about fish, but the same applies more generally). They can introduce their ‘protectionist’ controls and ‘red tape’ if they want but we won’t, seems to be his thinking.

It’s also a version of the narrower, but equally fallacious, Brexiter idea that it’s possible to be both out of those parts of single market they don’t like and yet retain those parts – like having no import controls – that they want. That in turn is an aspect of the perennial failure of Brexiters to understand that being outside the single market (and customs union) by definition entails the re-introduction of borders.

As usual, to understand what’s at stake it’s necessary first to cut through all the Brexiter confusion and then to engage with the genuine complexity of what is at stake. Included in the former is precisely Rees-Mogg’s rather surprising idea, given Brexiters’ breathless enthusiasm for sovereignty, that Britain could effectively free-ride on EU enforcement of standards to protect British farmers and consumers. But it’s not just surprising, it’s also flawed: the EU ensures that goods offered for sale in its market meet its standards, but places no obligations on EU companies to meet those standards when selling goods in external markets such as Great Britain (GB)*. EU companies might send goods to GB that do not meet EU standards with no ill-intent, or do so with the intention of off-loading sub-standard products in the knowledge that Britain had no border controls. Whatever the reason, it is for the receiving market to protect itself, not the EU.

Moreover, it is a confusion to refer, as Rees-Mogg does, to such protection as being ‘protectionist’ in the economic sense. Although they may have the effect of protecting EU producers from competition and so be, as Rees-Mogg suggests, non-tariff barriers to trade, in the case of SPS controls their primary purpose is to protect the public from various kinds of health dangers. It is the loss of these protections that is risked by not having full import controls.

The complexity of the single market ‘eco-system’

Beyond that, the idea of just carrying on without controls, as before Brexit, ignores the loss of participation in the complex structure or ‘eco-system’ that makes the single market work as such.  This eco-system includes the EU Animal Disease Information System (ADIS) which operates a highly sophisticated 24/7 notification and monitoring system which tracks and reports outbreaks and spreads of animal diseases, assisting rapid response and containment. Amongst other components are the Trade Control Expert System (TRACES), which is concerned with the entire agri-food chain, contributing to ensuring that food is safe for consumption, and the European Foods Standards Agency (EFSA) which communicates scientific risk assessments relating to the food chain.

Since Brexit, the UK has ceased to be a member of all these bodies but has developed its own Import of Products, Animals, Food and Feed System (IPAFFS) and has also expanded the role of the pre-existing Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and Food Standards Agency (FSA). However, so far as I can understand, there was no agreement for full and reciprocal data sharing in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, so what sharing of information there is between UK and EU systems is unsystematic (e.g. UK representatives attending some meetings of EU bodies but without any official status) and less rapid than before Brexit. Rapid and reliable information is a key issue in this context, as even a few hours can make all the difference to containing a disease outbreak. As with the lorry queues, a small extra delay or friction in one part of a complex system can create major problems elsewhere.

I don’t pretend to have any expertise in the details of these systems or exactly how they work. But it is clear just from the sources I consulted to write this, some of which I’ve linked to, that what are now national systems cannot fully replicate membership of EU transnational systems. Yet major parts of trade and supply chains continue to operate across the GB-EU border. So to argue that there’s no more risk than before Brexit is fallacious. Certainly the BVA's Senior Vice-President James Russell, who presumably does know exactly how these systems work, is unequivocal that lack of access to EU databases and systems increases risks and makes it more important to have the border checks in place that would mitigate these risks.

This sounds very familiar, and all the more plausible, because it is the same observation that has been made by security experts. In that area, too, whilst there is still some degree of UK-EU cooperation, including some data-sharing, the loss of full access to all EU databases makes things slower and more clunky than before. As with food security, this means crimes undetected or unpunished or, even lives lost. Ultimately, all of this roots back to the ideological refusal of the UK when it negotiated the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to participate in most data-sharing activities that have the ECJ as their ultimate legal authority, on the basis of ‘sovereignty’.

The irony of not ‘taking back control’

Thus simply not introducing import controls carries the increased risk that there will be problems, which might be minor or might create major scandals or crises. The longer that situation lasts, the greater the risk of such problems. Just ignoring them doesn’t make them cease to exist. Sooner or later – peek-a-boo! – they will jump into view.

It would also mean that those UK (and EU) companies which have prepared for import controls will have wasted their money, certainly if non-introduction becomes permanent. Indeed it bears saying that it is extraordinary that, less than three months before controls are meant to be introduced, businesses still don’t have any certainty not just about whether they will be but about the details of how they will operate. And, of course, if they aren’t introduced it will mean that it is much easier for EU firms to export to GB than for GB firms to export to the EU, a strange situation for Brexit ‘patriots’ to have created.

Nor does the strangeness stop there. It is an article of faith amongst Brexiters that a major benefit of their project is to set different regulatory standards from the EU, and as regards animal welfare specifically this has already begun to happen. It’s even, arguably, an area where GB standards will be higher than those of the EU, and certainly the government claims so. What an irony, then, if having created its independent regulations the government doesn’t enforce them on EU imports. And what a bitter irony for British farmers, especially, if it means being undercut by non-compliant imports from the ‘protectionist’ EU.

Seeing the totality of Brexit’s failure

It’s possible to think of this peek-a-boo Brexit in different ways. In one way, as I’ve suggested, it’s about the Brexiters’ unwillingness or inability to acknowledge complex realities rather as, apparently, the reason that babies like peek-a-boo is because they haven’t yet got the cognitive ability to understand ‘object permanence’. In the Brexit metaphor, though, each time reality re-appears Brexiters react with horror rather than gurgle with pleasure, and cover their faces to avoid seeing it. I suppose it could be thought of as a version of confirmation bias, which many psychologists think itself has a cognitive dimension.

Be that as it may, the wider political issue is whether the public in general – whether they voted leave or remain - knit together the various appearances of Brexit damage into a picture of Brexit failure. There are several reasons why that may not happen. One is how coy media reporting is about Brexit damage. For example, so far as I know, no major news network has linked the recent travel chaos to Brexit in any way at all. Similarly, Labour’s continuing reticence about Brexit must be a factor.

Secondly, it’s quite easy for people to see the various manifestations of Brexit damage in isolation, rather than as having a common cause. It’s also the case that, because the damage of Brexit is unfolding over time, it's hard to have a sense of its full scope. Related to that is the issue of personal experience. Many of the damages only really hit home for those directly affected, and most people will personally experience only a small sub-set. So it’s very difficult for most of us to discern the ‘object permanence’ which is the totality of Brexit’s failure.

Certainly the latest polling evidence suggests this is so, in that overall assessments of whether Brexit has had a positive impact (28%), a negative impact (45%) or made no difference (22%) have stayed fairly stable, rather than showing a shift to judging it negatively as the negative effects have increasingly emerged. On the other hand, Brexit was meant to be not just a policy, but an entire re-set of national strategy which would have indubitably positive results. So for so few to see a positive impact well over a year since the end of the transition period is, in and of itself, a remarkable indictment of its folly.



*Here and elsewhere I refer to Great Britain when appropriate because, as most readers will know, Northern Ireland remains effectively inside the European single market for goods, including livestock. However, it’s not always clear when to use UK and when to use GB e.g. later I will refer to the Food Standards Agency as a UK body because it plays some role in Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales (but Scotland has a separate agency, Foods Standards Scotland). I’ve attempted to be accurate but concise, and hope what I have done does not cause any offence.


Unless something significant happens, I will be taking a break from blogging for Easter, so the next post will be on Friday 22 April.