Boris Johnson’s Brexit Deal (Or No?) Undermined By Incompetence

Photograph Source: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency – CC BY 2.0

In 2016, BoJo Johnson travelled into the future and arrived at a post-Brexit Britain. The vista he faced pleased BoJo immensely. Writing in The Telegraph, the charlatan fantasist and future prime minister said of the panorama in front of him:

“The markets were calm. The pound did not collapse. The British government immediately launched a highly effective and popular campaign across the Continent to explain that this was not a rejection of ‘Europe’, only of the supranational EU institutions; and a new relationship was rapidly forged based on free trade and with traditional British leadership on foreign policy, crime-fighting, intelligence-sharing and other intergovernmental cooperation”.

Nearly everyone knows that BoJo’s avidity for his own fictions and any attendant chicanery almost rivals that of Donald Trump.

In the run-up to the 2019 general election, the Conservative party’s official Twitter account was rebranded as a fact-checking service. Beat that Donnie!

Last week, Tory activists in the constituency of the hardline pro-Brexit MP Peter Bone were urged in a party newsletter to emulate Trump by “weaponising fake news” and talking “nonsense” if this works. The bulletin sent out to members in the constituency went on to say: “A lie can go round the world before the truth can get its boots on”.

The UK helped defeat the Nazi Germany of Joseph Goebbels in World War Two, but it would appear that Dr Goebbels will have won the peace if the Tories get their way on “fake news”.

The Tory Brexiters had 4 years to deal with the obvious reality posed by the EU’s unwavering position on a trade deal (i.e., the core of its regulatory framework needs to be retained in any such deal), but the Tories preferred to con the electorate with an imaginary “oven-ready” deal with the EU.

The Tory Brexiter scenario was decidedly rosy.

The UK, supposedly freed from EU shackles, will become “Singapore on the Thames”; that “we would immediately be able to start negotiating new trade deals with emerging economies and the world’s biggest economies which could enter into force immediately after the UK leaves the EU” (the words of Dominic Cummings, BoJo’s recently dismissed Svengali-like chief adviser); and that “getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards” (Sir John Redwood, a senior Tory MP).

The pro-Brexit former chair of the Confederation of British Industry, Lord Digby Jones, preached that the German car-manufacturers (fearing loss of access to the UK market) will somehow bring Angela Merkel to her senses.

The noble Lord, a plutocrat, failed to understand that new Mercedes Benzs and BMWs can only be afforded (in the main) by the UK’s stock-portfolio class, that Audis are for the top bracket of the salariat, while anyone else who wanted a German car, and who could afford it, had to make do with a Volkswagen. In any event, someone able to afford a Benz or a Beamer today will probably have no problem forking-out that little extra incurred by the imposition of tariffs on EU goods imported into the UK.

These Brexiter Alice-in-Wonderlanders were eager, or maybe even desperate, to follow the White Rabbit down the Brexit rabbit hole.

The truth of the matter is that the UK is not prepared for a post-Brexit world even it secured a trade deal with the EU.

An article in Prospect said last month that “Overall, just 12.5 per cent of businesses feel ready for what is to come; in the food and drink sector, only 3.5 per cent say they are fully prepared. The problem is severe for larger businesses, but even worse for small- and medium-sized enterprises which have far fewer resources to devote to planning”.

Covid is responsible for this situation in part, but the blame lies largely with the government’s incompetence when it came to making adequate preparations for Brexit.

BoJo and his fellow Brexit devotees maintained the fiction of “frictionless” trade between the UK and EU (after the transition period ends on December 31st) until very recently, and failed to create the requisite regulatory framework for a post-Brexit UK. To quote the above-mentioned Prospect article:

“Additionally, the government has been laggardly in creating the multiple new regulatory agencies entailed by leaving the single market, many of which even now are not fully established. It is obviously impossible for businesses to prepare for new regulatory regimes when they have not actually been developed. And even though in many cases it seems likely that the UK regulations will remain the same as those of the EU, new accreditations and registrations are still needed”.

Another complication is posed by the near certainty that the IT software intended to help transport companies submit their customs and border control paperwork digitally will not be ready on 1 January. BBC News reported at the end of October:

“The Association of Freight Software Suppliers (AFSS) said its members could not guarantee delivery because officials had failed to give it details and direction for the project.

…. The AFSS explained the problem was that some functions could not be designed until it was known exactly what they needed to do, and that could not happen until trade negotiations ended.

… the association’s chairman Stephen Bartlett said… “When we ask how some of the systems are going to work, we’re told, ‘We can’t talk about it”, he explained”.

For its part, the government insists that any such disruption is going to be “short term”.

The EU, by contrast, has its Brexit logistical and infrastructural systems already in place.

In addition to the above, the UK Department for Transport confirmed that the customs control area near Ashford in Kent for lorries arriving in the UK on ferries will not be completed in time for the end of the transition period.

The DfT says an unanticipated level of rainfall in England during the autumn is responsible for the slower pace of construction.

Traffic jams of up to 7,000 lorries are expected in Kent, home of the UK’s channel ports, caused by new and untried (and so potentially confusing) customs and border-control procedures at the end of the year.

The National Audit Office has warned that there will be disruption regardless of the outcome of Brexit negotiations. Indeed, there have been 5-mile traffic jams in Kent the past few days as firms rush to boost their stockpiles before 1 January.

If all this transpires, and most of it will, Brits will be in for a miserable new year, with the Covid pandemic adding to their wretchedness.

Refusing to learn from the US experience when lockdown measures were eased during the Thanksgiving period, BoJo declined to follow the advice of his medical and public health advisers, and decreed that a similar lifting of lockdown restrictions should take place during a 5-day Christmas period. Then reality struck: a new and more contagious strain of the virus emerged, and Johnson was forced into another U-turn. The lockdown will only be lifted for Christmas Day itself.

The baneful and tragic repercussions of such recklessness are almost inevitable.

Brexit was from the beginning an ideological project designed to paper-over conflicts in the ruling Tory party (David Cameron’s aim in calling the Brexit referendum); and then morphing into a mobilization, forefronted by this ideological project, to ensure electoral success (Theresa May and Johnson).

Electoral success was duly delivered to the Tories, but Ukanian voters have yet to be confronted with the full price they’ll have to pay as a consequence.

All these voters can count on are more meaningless 3-word slogans on podiums, created by PR consultants paid a small fortune to do so, and accompanied by yet more rounds of resounding mismanagement.

As I write supposed deadlines come and go.

However, as the talks go deeper into December, the time-frame needed for EU-member governments to translate and scrutinize any agreed-upon document narrows inexorably, leaving the UK to end the transition period without a new trading arrangement with Brussels.

The European parliament’s leaders have said publicly they will need time to scrutinize the agreed text before the end of the transition period.

The probable outcome is that there will be a no-deal period after I January, as negotiations between London and Brussels continue.

This will force the UK to take emergency measures for which it is unprepared. So much for BoJo’s attractive post-Brexit vista in 2016.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.