Richard North, 13/07/2020  

In what they evidently regard as something of a coup, the Telegraph has an authored article from Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury's and Remain campaigner, telling readers that "a no-deal Brexit won't be a disaster".

This is precisely the sort of message the Telegraph needs to get out if it is to support its favourite son, who seems intent on taking us down that route. Speaking very personally, though, I'm as much inclined to take political advice from a (former) grocer as I am the cat next door.

Notwithstanding the obvious point that we've already left the EU, so Brexit has come and gone, we also have to bear in mind that King is one of the golden elites – that band of over-generously salaried British CEOs.

That, on the face of it, makes his opinion even less reliable. These people are too divorced from real life, and far too well insulated from the consequences of any advice they give. They have no skin in the game.

Even setting that prejudice aside, King's information wouldn't be up to much. He encourages businesses to "prepare properly" for "Brexit". But what he covers is extraordinarily limited, amounting to dealing with the "groundwork" for "things like tariffs and the paperwork necessary to support them".

As we have seen for the last four years, the knowledge of many of the pundits extends only to tariffs and such matters. The concept of non-tariff barriers, if even mentioned, is rarely understood. Then, in the sort of business that Mr King knows, coping with the price increases that certain tariffs might bring is about all he needs to do.

Alarmingly, though, King has other ways of illustrating his profound ignorance, which he does with the comment that "a willingness to embrace no deal as a possibility is also an excellent negotiating tactic, and an option I therefore expect to stay on the table right up to the moment a deal is concluded".

A shopkeeper might indeed think that, especially one with significant buying power. When trying to squeeze the last possible price advantage out of reluctant suppliers of toilet paper – where there are plenty of competitors bidding for the business – the "no-deal" tactic is a useful one.

But, when it comes to a complex issue such as a trade agreement with our biggest and best trading partners, one might be rather stunned to find that the man is of such limited intellectual capacity that he sees any parallel. But then, the "might" is conditional – the stock of British CEOs is hardly impressive.

This actually seems to be the way of the world though. The establishment has lived for many years – centuries even – on the myth that they are somehow superior in knowledge and, therefore, wisdom.

But the reality – especially in this internet age – is otherwise. Knowledge and understanding seems to take on the profile of a pyramid: the higher up you go, the less you have. But as long as people, blinded by the effects of prestige, think differently, then the myth survives.

From the look of it though, the government is about to display its own lack of knowledge of the consequences of a no-deal "TransEnd" as it gears up for a £93 million "information" campaign to prepare business and the public for 1 January 2021.

As one might expect, we are to be treated to multiple statements of the bleedin' obvious, such as "travelling to the Continent will be a different experience next year". Or, as we increasingly find ourselves saying: "No shit, sherlock!".

We will get warnings about passports (not to travel if the document is within six months of expiry), travel insurance (expect increases), mobile phone charges (free roaming may end) and travelling with pets (don't, unless you want to pay rip-off vet fees).

The government's "initiative" – if that's what it is – goes under the rather tacky slogan, "The UK's new start: let's get going". You'd think with the amount of money it spends on advertising agencies, it could come up with something better than that, especially as for many, the future means they won't be going anywhere in a hurry.

Business owners "who import and export goods", will find themselves being urged to apply in good time for an EU Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number. However, since this is an EU system, I can't see it applying to importers of goods.

A taste of things to come was laid before us when toilet cleaner Gove appeared yesterday on the Marr Show to tell us that "whether or not we secure a Canada-style trade deal with the EU during the course of the negotiations that we're carrying out, we will be, we know, outside both the Single Market and the Customs Union come what may".

I'm not sure if that suggests that this implies that Gove thinks a Canada-style trade deal is still on the cards but, if he does, that rather proves my point about the information pyramid. As to leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, anyone who needed to know that surely must know by now.

Gove has it that, "This will bring changes and significant opportunities for which we all need to prepare". Companies and citizens should be "ready to hit the ground running". Metaphorically, they can certainly comply with the first bit. The "running" may prove a little bit more difficult for some traders.

Questioned on the purchase of the "Mojo" site, Mr Gove also tells us that the government wants to make sure that freight travelling through Kent can get to Dover and "then onto the ferries and then into France and into the rest of Europe as quickly as possible".

Again, one is not entirely clear from what he is saying that the man really knows what is going on. His opportunities for ensuring that freight gets "into France and into the rest of Europe as quickly as possible" is strictly limited, being largely in the hands of the French authorities.

As to the nature of the general publicity campaign, we're not much the wiser. Some of those who have been able to preview the campaign suggest that there might not be that much more to have than we have already learned. Pundits have been surprised to find how little information is provided, at least in the early stages of the campaign.

To an extent, the government does have to be a little cautious. It might stand accused of denting already fragile consumer confidence, or triggering another round of panic buying, which would further stress a retail system already under pressure.

Left hanging is the situation in Northern Ireland, resting on the fiction that the rules have yet to be fully defined, pending further negotiations that may run to the end of the year. There does seem to be an expectation at the heart of government that the EU can be prevailed upon to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement.

It was left to Gove somehow to explain to Marr how the prime minister's promise that there would not be any checks on goods going to Northern Ireland would be honoured. To say he was unconvincing is to stretch the meaning of the word "understatement" to its breaking point.

As we lap all this up, though, we can see the debate running to the wire. While Justin King is at pains to assure us that a no-deal scenario won't be a disaster, the Guardian line, via William Keegan is that "it becomes more obvious by the day that a no-deal Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster".

Regrettably, writes Keegan, "this strange country has left the EU and is merely enjoying a period of grace, while the behaviour of our so-called leaders calls to mind a classical quotation that may be familiar to Johnson: Quem deus vult perdere, prius dementat. "Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad".

When the Guardian starts quoting Latin, I suppose, we really need to worry.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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