Monday, 2 November 2020

Under cover of Covid

DATES and events are beginning to converge for the UK like some perfect storm on a doomsday calendar. The end of the new national lockdown, being implemented across England from this Thursday (4 November), will nominally take us to within 30 days of the end of the EU transition period.

And if the lockdown has to be extended, either nationally or regionally, not only is it going to bump straight into Christmas but then swiftly follows 31 December, the day that the UK goes rogue from Europe.

It means the UK is likely to be in the midst of two major crisis at the same time, at least one of them wholly self-inflicted and still, potentially, postponable.

Twelve months ago who would have prophesied, or even dare imagine, that the country would be living simultaneously in the first and second episodes of some wild dystopian trilogy? 

That Britons would, throughout 2020, have had their civil liberties severely restricted, that pubs would be unable to serve a pint, and that people would be forbidden from visiting their families or loved ones.

At the same time the impending conflagration of the ending Brexit transition period does not seem to bother the current prime minister and his team, at least in public. Or is it that a government can, perhaps quite reasonably, only concentrate on one major thing at once?

More likely, its appointees and associates are all still hedging their Brexit hedge fund bets and, come January, whatever the Covid-state-of-the-nation, are looking forward to divvying out some lucrative financial rewards.

The Lighthouse Keeper has been viewing events and this unfortunate convergence of dates with increasing alarm and disdain for some time from a favourite cliff top perch on England’s North Norfolk coast.

It looks out over the grey North Sea and, on clear days, it almost seems possible to see the low-lying coast of the Netherlands, hardly sunlit uplands in a physical sense but nevertheless beginning to look quite enticing from this side of the Brexit divide.

Of course, whichever way you view it, the country is in something of a pandemic-driven economic crisis already and, by all accounts, preparations for leaving the EU are also seriously behind the curve, which means a bumpy ride for many come the New Year.

The fact that the Covid-19 crisis has also been handled in a somewhat lackadaisical and reactive way by the Johnson-led government hardly bodes well for the enormous, long-term complexities of post-EU Britain.

Only this morning, on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Prof Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s SAGE science advisory group, said: "We can't turn back the clock but if we had chosen a two-week circuit breaker in mid-September we would definitely have saved thousands of lives.

“And we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lock down will now do."

Ministers will say that there are other costs to lockdown that they were weighing up, which is very true and too often forgotten. But by making a late U-turn, it becomes much harder to make that point, as now those costs are being borne anyway, with none of the benefits of acting earlier.

Are we repeating the same inexcusable mistakes elsewhere and will we, come the start of January, be saying just the same about a botched and ill-planned Brexit departure?

If only we had used the time to prepare wisely. If only we could turn the clock back. If only we had strategic leadership with the country's best interests at heart.

Despite the government's current narrative, Brexit isn't really the story of getting a trade deal with the EU. It's the story of discarding one. And not just any old trade deal. The country is discarding single market and customs union membership, part of the most advanced trade deal anywhere on Earth.

To put the tricky situation in further context, I turn to the latest article by Prof Chris Grey and the conclusion of this blog is a precis of what he published on Friday (30 October) soon after returning from a half-term trip to Germany.

“Drive down any motorway today and you see the unavoidable message of the government’s increasingly panicky campaign - ‘time is running out’. Brexit is no longer mentioned, for we are not supposed to recall that what were to have been the ‘sunny uplands’ turn out to be a quagmire of paperwork, expense and inconvenience," he writes. 

"In Kent on the way to Dover there is more visible evidence of the future - huge construction works for  the giant lorry parks that will be needed post-transition.

None of the difficulties, as everyone should know by now, will be avoided by an EU-UK trade deal, although they will be worsened without a deal. The outcome remains opaque. 

Tony Connelly, a journalist for the Irish TV channel RTE, reports that one reason the outcome of negotiations remains unknowable is Johnson’s almost pathological aversion to making the necessary choices.

One suggestion is that he will await the outcome of this week’s US Presidential election before deciding which way to jump. It may be a plausible enough theory of Johnson’s decision-making process, if only because it is so inane.

Economically, of course, even the best US trade deal will not come close to compensating for the damage of there being no deal with the EU.

A tiny foretaste of just how dishonest the spin will become came in the government’s triumphant announcement that, as a result of a trade deal it has just signed with Japan, soy sauce will be cheaper from 1 January as it will attract a zero tariff.

Even that turned out to be a lie of a strange and complex sort. Soy sauce currently has no tariff charged anyway because of the EU-Japan trade deal which the UK is leaving, so the deal with Japan doesn’t make it cheaper it just stops it getting more expensive by virtue of trading on WTO terms."

Its all very nonsensical and misleading, just like the Alice in Wonderland politics the Lighthouse Keeper wrote about in Johnson’s land of fake believe back in 2019. 

Prof Grey goes on: "Moving from Brexiter PR back into the real world what we find are new reports of impending labour shortages once transition ends in fields ranging from agriculture to dentistry, of regulatory uncertainty in industries from aerospace to chemicals, and of ongoing difficulties in the recruitment of trained customs staff.

Many of these stories are, as they have been for years, under the public radar, appearing in the business pages of newspapers or in the specialist media of particular industries.

There is more public awareness when the Brexit effects on holiday-makers are reported, as with last weekend’s outrage at the ‘petty EU’ for ‘threatening’ British tourists with longer passport queues from next year.

It’s a story that encapsulates so much of the Brexiter mindset. That this was likely to be an effect of Brexit is not a new idea, but they dismissed it in the past as Project Fear. Then, when it threatens to become a reality, they treat it as a form of punishment as if, whilst leaving the EU, Britain ought to retain the rights it had as a member.

As the years have gone on, this mindset seems to have become so ingrained that there is no way of reasoning with it: all the adverse effects of Brexit are either denied (they won’t happen, it’s just scaremongering), ignored (they aren’t happening), displaced (they are happening but it’s not because of Brexit) or disowned (they shouldn’t happen, it’s only because the EU is punishing us).

Much that is familiar to everyday life in Britain is being ripped up by force majeure and few of us have alive today have experienced anything like it. But, still, Britain pushes on with the one, supposedly inviolable, immutable policy of Brexit.

It is a policy of such folly that the government no longer dares mention it by name and which even its most enthusiastic proponents have ceased to try to justify in any serious way. The Brexit Emperor lacks not just clothes now but skin and flesh too.

Yet even now – hugely difficult as it would be – it wouldn’t be totally impossible, given the extraordinary circumstances for the UK, to at least try to find some route to extending the transition,  rather than to just parrot that ‘time is running out’.

It seems feasible that, if the UK was open to such an idea, the EU would be at least willing to explore how to make it work, if only because of the worsening Covid-19 situation in many of its member states too.

The likelihood that this won’t happen, however, is down solely to the warthog stubbornness of a small group of fanatical Brexiters, still fighting the battle to leave that they have already won, and totally indifferent to its costs.

So, in Brexit trade terms we blunder on. Prisoners of a series of past decisions that we do not have the wit or the will to revisit, and of a small but powerful group of ideologues we are either too cowardly or too weak to face down. It is worse than folly. It is insanity.” 

The Lighthouse Keeper couldn’t agree more. 

To read Prof Chris Grey’s full post click here: Beyond folly”.

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