Richard North, 15/07/2019  

If ever one needed to know why businesses are so often badly managed, and why the banking industry makes such a mess of things, it is probably because they employ intellectual lightweights such as Anthony Browne, one-time business reporter and economics correspondent for the BBC and former policy director for economic development for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson when he was mayor of London.

Typically, this is the sort of person – a "quango queen" with trousers - to whom the Spectator turns when it wants to extend its no-deal propaganda, knowing that the man will deliver just the right level of misinformation to make it look plausible, without actually veering anywhere near the truth.

Thus we have the decidedly smug and self-satisfied Browne seeking to address the question of whether a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster, to which he offers the predictable answer, "probably not", then purporting to give the reasons why – building on an edifice that asserts that "the government is better prepared than it has let on".

It matters not in the least to the Spectator that this self-serving rhetoric coincides with a statement from chancellor Hammond – to be broadcast in full by the Panorama programme later this week - warning that the UK "will lose control in a no-deal scenario", not least because "others control the levers", in particular the EU-27 and private business.

Necessarily, he says, a no-deal Brexit would leave Britain at the mercy of the French, who would be able to "dial up" or "dial down" at will the queues for goods going into the port of Calais. Paris would be able to exploit the Channel crossing to exert pressure in the same way that the Spanish had used the border with Gibraltar.

Despite spending more than £4 billion on Brexit preparations, Hammond said there would be a limit to the amount of influence the government could exert in the event of no-deal. We can seek to persuade the others, he said, but we can't control it. "For example, we can make sure that goods flow inwards through the port of Dover without any friction but we can't control the outward flow into the port of Calais".

What Hammond is saying, of course, would easily qualify as a statement of the bleedin' obvious, as we've been rehearsing such issues for years, issues about which the legacy media and the politicians have displayed their usual level of ignorance, so much so that what Hammond is now saying is actually treated as news.

Needless to say, the possibility of delays at Calais is precisely the sort of issue that the egregious Browne homes in on, this being one of the headline issues which will most likely define the media perception of a no-deal Brexit.

Last year, says Browne, the French ports of Calais and Boulogne weren't ready, leading to predictions of the M20 becoming a lorry park, and shortages of food and drugs. But, he now reassures us, Calais has now stepped up the number of checkpoints, employed 700 customs staff, and bought scanners which check lorries as they drive past. Then, as the no-dealers always do, Browne relies on the president of the Port Boulogne Calais, who has said, "there will not be any delay" in a no-deal Brexit.

It is this element of wishful thinking that really gives the game away. Jean-Marc Puissesseau, Browne's "president", was the man who originally warned of 20-mile queues outside Calais but later changed his tune when he and other local politicians conceived the idea of building an off-site joint customs SPS facility at La Zone Turquerie to service both the port and Eurotunnel.

But, like so many local (and national) politicians, Puissesseau had very little idea of how EU "official controls" work, and had entirely misinformed himself about "derogations" that might permit an off-site facility – the key to his plans to avoid congestion at the port and thus ensure that there were no delays.

When Brussels stepped in, however, the local authorities fell into line and we now see Border Control Posts established within the perimeter of Calais Port, with separate facilities established at Eurotunnel. The very arrangements needed to avoid congestion, therefore, have been vetoed by Brussels.

Furthermore, it is in the nature of the system that, while the port authorities provide the physical infrastructure for customs and SPS checks, staffing is provided by national government who work to a remit set by EU law and supervised directly by Brussels. The local authorities have no control over the scale or tempo of inspections, and must simply conform with the requirements of the authorities charged with implementing border controls.

It goes without saying, therefore, that with both customs and SPS checks being carried out at Calais Port and Eurotunnel, when hitherto there were none, there are going to be delays. The only question is the extent, and this is unanswerable until the system goes into operation.

However, it cannot necessarily be assumed that official border controls will be the only factor at play. Already, the Calais Port has experienced delays through industrial action from customs officials. But what might also be experienced is blocking action by either farmers or fishermen, who see in Brexit an opportunity to curtail UK imports. This possibility cannot be discounted.

Interestingly, Browne doesn't directly mention SPS controls and the need for Border Control Posts, and nor is he up-to-date on the Calais situation. But then, writing for the Spectator, he doesn't actually need to be informed. He just needs to tick the boxes which will keep the faithful happy, sedated by misinformation which allows them the comfort of believing that no-deal is a credible option.

That said, much of what Browne relies upon lies in straw man territory. For a long time – after being at the cutting edge of evaluating the effects of a no-deal Brexit – I have taken the view that the headline delays and possible shortages, so beloved of the legacy media, are the least of our problems.

Mostly, what we will see is the accumulation of disincentives, some small and some large, which will dissuade continental buyers from sourcing goods and services from the UK. Progressively, as is already happening, UK exports to EEA territories will gradually decline, the fall picking up momentum should we leave with a no-deal. The net effect will be a collapse of exports, causing major damage to a market worth £270 billion.

This, as Hammond indicates, is something over which the UK has little control. When we leave the EU, we become a third country in our relationship with the EU, and the restrictions that apply to our trade will automatically take effect. Without the mitigating effect of a comprehensive free trade agreement, the result can only be a substantial downturn in trading volume.

Significantly, Browne scarcely talks of our new status as a third country, which relieves him of the need to explore the wide range of implications. Rather, he focuses his readers' attention on preparations for a no-deal, heedless of the fact that so much lies beyond the remit of the UK.

But this is the way the game is being played. Politically, for the likes of Johnson, no-deal must be seen to be a tenable option. So the hacks and the drones are enlisted to make it so, with compliant media sources enlisted to the propaganda effect – the self-same media outlets that are so quick to squeal about "press freedom" if there is ever a hint on constraint.

What these outlets clearly haven't anticipated is that there will be a price to pay for dedicating themselves to the pursuit of political propaganda. Despite the facile reassurances of the likes of Browne, the net is closing, as no-deal becomes more of a reality by the day.

European Commission president-designate Ursula von der Leyen has in recent days reiterated her strong support for the Withdrawal Agreement and declares that the backstop is "absolutely necessary", ruling out once again any prospect of a renegotiation.

If then, 31 October becomes the date of our no-deal departure, the unavoidable realities will not be long in becoming evident. And all those legacy media outlets which have talked down the consequences of a no-deal will have some explaining to do. Blaming the EU will only take them so far, whence the credibility of media will take another lurch downwards.

For the moment though, their lies and misinformation prevail – no one can prove them wrong. But events will tell their own story. Then the wages of propaganda will become due.

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