Richard North, 23/06/2020  

Expressed by number of days – including the leap year – four years seems an odd figure to be celebrating (or not), but no matter how it is expressed, it seems a long time to get to where we are today.

But if it was four years ago today that we went to the polls, I wonder how many of us could have projected forward for this length of time and got anywhere near predicting where we would be today – still within a "transitional period" that hadn't even been invented then, watching a train-wreck prime minister count down the hours to a no-deal departure.

For sure, technically, we left the EU at the beginning of the year but, with the transitional period, the only substantive things that changed were the loss of our representation on the Council and in the European Parliament, turning Nigel Farage and his colleagues into redundant nonentities, except that Farage is now doing groupie duty for Donald Trump, coronavirus notwithstanding.

Now we await our fate, and the Brexit story of the day – at the time of writing – is a Times offering that has Scottish academics wibbling about the impact of what they call a "no-deal Brexit" on food supplies.

As I recall mentioning previously, we have actually left the EU so, technically, Brexit has already happened. A no-deal Brexit would have meant leaving without a withdrawal agreement – and we didn't do that. Logically, therefore, such an event is impossible unless someone can invent a machine that goes back in time.

Nevertheless, it is too much to ask academics – or even The Times - to indulge in things like accuracy or precision in the way they express themselves. Any old slop will do when it comes to addressing the plebs.

The point that these academics are trying to make, though, is that if we end the transition period without a trade deal - which now seems likely – then there is a distinct possibility that there will be an impact on food prices.

But such is the unremarkability (if that even is a word) of this story that the academics from Scotland’s Rural College have to dress it up with dire warnings that some people will find it harder to meet the recommended consumption quota of five portions a day of fruit and vegetables.

Such is the nature of the media that a simple analysis of projected food prices will get you nowhere, but a piece of creative, if speculative, spin will get you your name in the pages of an increasingly trivial and irrelevant newspaper.

Even this, though, is an improvement on an Evening Standard story on fishing and the government's post-Brexit policy which is so boring that I struggled to read to the end of it.

The trouble with this subject is that it is unresolvable and, to be blunt, I don't think many people care very much about the detail. When I looked at fisheries policy many years ago, the one thing that came over is that it is technically incredibly complex, politically difficult and unrewarding, and an international nightmare.

What I have since concluded is that this government has neither the capability nor the intention of crafting a sensible or effective fisheries policy, hence (possibly) Lord Krebs's intervention (the subject of the Standard story).

Not least of our problems here is that the infrastructure costs of providing the research, monitoring and enforcement base are probably greater than the entire fishing industry will earn in a generation.

It would most likely be cheaper to prohibit all commercial fishing in UK waters (other than day-trip sea angling, which is quite lucrative), and buy all our cod and haddock from Norway, the Faeroes and Iceland – which is what we do anyway. Mostly, only foreigners eat our fish, so they can do without.

All it would need then is a small fleet of Mod-surplus Predator UAV "drones" armed with Hellfire missiles to blast errant trawlers out of existence, the moment they drop their nets in UK waters. After a few sinkings, skippers would get the message.

If we play our cards right, I suppose, we could always import Fugu, assuming we're able to sign up with Japan for a trade deal in six-weeks. This, it seems, is what it has come to with the Japanese government having given the Johnson administration that long to agree to a post-Brexit trade deal – which would make it the fastest trade deal in history.

Predictably, Tokyo’s chief negotiator, Hiroshi Matsuura, warned that both sides will need to "limit their ambitions" as there is little time for talks on contentious areas such as tariffs and quotas.

But, if we are to avoid a trade gap from January onwards, when the Japan-EU trade deal will no longer apply to the UK, we must get our skates on if we are to have a replacement ready. According to Matsuura, that means concluding negotiations by the end of July, if any deal is to be ratified in time by the Japanese parliament.

There might be an element of brinkmanship here, as there are provisions under WTO rules to trade on preferential, tariff-free terms pending a full agreement (the famous Art XXIV), providing the parties commit to longer-term arrangements.

Basically, though, that's what Brexit has come down to – a rash of disjointed, "silly-season" style of stories with no coherent (or any) thread. One could say that this is rather like the government, which also lacks any coherence on Brexit.

To some extent, the Covid-19 pandemic can be blamed, although with or without Covid, Brexit was always going to be a train wreck in the hands of Johnson. It is unlikely though that the slogan "it can only get worse" will win any elections.

But, that's where we are. With Covid still dominating the headlines, stories about the gradual relaxation of lockdown, the fourth anniversary of the Brexit referendum has largely gone unremarked. Whatever happened to the idea of turning 23 June in a national holiday?

That leaves us just with Covid stories to play with, and I am much taken with a BMJ report that tells us that local health protection teams have traced nearly eight times more contacts (77,642) than the national call centres and online service (9,997).

In response, the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (iSAGE) says that: "This raises serious questions about the efficiency and value for money of the contracts and highlights the vital role being played by the public health teams in track and trace".

But we hardly need this bunch of worthies to tell us that. As someone who has actually done this job on the ground, I don't know how often I have to say this, but I TOLD YOU SO.

Those who have done the job at the sharp end know from long, hard experience that people do not respond over the phone to complete strangers asking them for intimate and sometimes sensitive details. And this is without measuring the quality of information.

People on the phone will lie, or send you off on a wild goose chase and, in any event, it is reckoned that more than half of communication is via body language. Unless you are face-to-face, you miss important clues that guide your questioning and help you assess the reliability of the answers.

The thing is, WE KNOW THESE THINGS through hard, practical experience, out on the patch. This centralised system was never going to work. That it hasn't worked comes as no surprise at all.

But, as Cummings once told me, "The trouble with you, North, is you don't understand politics". Think how far I could have got if I did.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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