Richard North, 25/09/2020  

Even though the nation is focused on Covid-19 – those who are not already bored witless by it - the proximity of TransEnd is beginning to claim media attention, and especially the developing situation in Dover.

Mostly, though, we tend to be looking at the left-leaning press, possibly because reports and editorials tend to be critical, or imply criticism of The Great Leader, prime minister Johnson.

Critical is certainly an appropriate description of today's Guardian, but that's what one would expect.

However, even by Guardian standards, the tone is rather strident as it describes the "new Brexit borders" as "the price of political fraud". What the government calls a "worst-case scenario", it says, is a direct consequence of choices made by Johnson last year.

The paper homes in on the " prospect of a Brexit-induced queue of 7,000 lorries at Dover", each one requiring a permit to enter the county of Kent. I gather these are now being called "Kermits".

It is difficult to dispute the opening line, where it asserts that the reports we're reading at the moment "would once have been dismissed by leave campaigners as baseless fearmongering". But what was once "Project Fear" has suddenly become the government’s "reasonable worst-case scenario" for the end of transitional arrangements with the EU on 31 December.

This is a good point, well made. Both Pete and I have taken endless flak for pointing out the inevitable consequences if certain policy lines are followed, with many seemingly unable to appreciate that, in order to avoid problems (where that is possible), one must first define them and the circumstances in which they might occur.

That we've been doing for long enough, in the hope that our political masters might see the pitfalls and act in good time, before we are adversely affected. That was the original intention but currently, there is little prospect of the government paying attention, so it's just a matter of recording the train-wrecks as they occur.

One of those is the "grim scene" – in the words of the Guardian - which was set out on Wednesday by Michael Gove. It was then that he told parliament that Britain did not yet have an operational border ready for the abrupt reintroduction of regulations and checks necessary to clear a new frontier with Europe's customs union and single market.

The government's "check, change, go" campaign, urging businesses to prepare, the paper reminds us, has been running since July, but inevitably traders' attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic. But those that have been worrying about Brexit have found it hard to get through to Downing Street.

What we now have to come to terms with is that the government has no intention of taking responsibility for a border fiasco of its own making. Instead, it seems, two targets are being lined up for blame – the companies that have to handle the trade, and the EU.

In that context, we are directed to a parliamentary committee earlier this week, where George Eustice, the environment secretary, was speaking. I saw the clip on Twitter, and listened to him, with growing incredulity, claiming that "all the work in the world" was being done to prepare on the UK side, but that chaos could not be ruled out as a result of things being "slipshod and disorganised" on the continent.

Not surprisingly, the Guardian calls this a cynical inversion of the truth, and counsels that the frequency with which the government attempts such travesties should not diminish the shock at hearing a new one.

It is entirely fair to say that the European Commission – through its Notices to Stakeholders - has been well ahead of the UK in notifying ports about the hazard of new friction at the border and how to mitigate it. Meanwhile, British freight and logistics companies have been pleading with the government to pay more heed to the practical economic implications of UK policy choices.

The paper says these are driven by "Eurosceptic dogma", but I'm not even sure that is the case. More likely, they are so embedded in their groupthink bubbles that they can't see the wood for the trees.

Herein lies the quintessential problem: Johnson has no interest in dissenting testimony. If Alok Sharma, the business secretary, has doubts about the current plans (or has had doubts thrust on him by anxious traders), the message, says the paper, is unlikely to be forced on a prime minister who expects nodding subservience from his cabinet.

Furthermore, while Gove has more clout in the government's upper echelons, he shows no sign of applying it for the purpose of shaking Johnson out of his complacency.

Instead, the focus is on urging the private sector to do the heavy lifting that the government has been shirking all year. In July, the government promised to train about 50,000 new customs agents to satisfy an expected surge in demand.

The number so far recruited is thought to be substantially less (Gove refuses to give a figure) and brokers do not have resources to pre-emptively hire staff in the autumn to save the government's blushes in winter.

Add to that, IT systems that are meant to lubricate new border controls are not yet up and running. It is impossible for some businesses to prepare fully for new regulatory requirements, because the details depend on the terms of a deal that does not exist.

And so the Guardian's litany of woe unfolds. In a letter to cabinet colleagues, Gove noted that problems at Channel ports will arise "irrespective of the outcome of negotiations". This, in itself, is a major advance, as we have seen so often that problems are associated with a "no-deal" scenario.

At last there is that dawning recognition that the Brexit solution itself is the primary cause of disruption to the passage of freight, the increase in the burden of bureaucracy, and the reduction in the volume of trade, slowing the economy.

Of course, the Guardian wants to pin the blame on Johnson, and I'm quite content with that. But one must remember that Cameron continually spoke out against the Efta/EEA option, and it was Mrs May who ensured that we left the single market.

And that is where the ultimate mistake lies. In the short- to medium-term, the Efta/EEA was the only feasible option, and now we are about to pay the price. The "reasonable worst case" that ministers warn about, says the paper, is not some accident or unintended consequence. It is a function of the plan they hailed last year as a triumph.

Now, Johnson is creating borders where there were none, inflicting cost where none was previously levied, erecting barriers, closing doors and calling it freedom. As the moment of implementation nears, the Guardian concludes, "fraud inherent in the whole enterprise is getting harder to conceal".

It's a pretty rum do, however, that we find ourselves so closely aligned with the Guardian position, although it might have helped if it had supported calls to adopt the Efta/EEA option. As it is, the paper metaphorically "sat on its hands", and now it's bitching that we're going to Hell in a handcart.

However, there does seem to be a glimmer of good news. INews is suggesting that a trade deal is looking close (or closer), "despite the sound and fury between UK and EU over Internal Market Bill".

Negotiators on both sides, we are told, are quietly plugging away at a free-trade agreement even while politicians snipe at each other. There is a draft legal text weighing in around 650 pages, with just two outstanding issues remaining to be agreed: fishing rights for European boats in UK waters, and the state aid rules imposed by Britain’s Government after the end of the transition period.

The key now, we learn, is for the UK to convince the EU that it can be trusted not to undercut the continent on state aid, by pouring cash into British industry which would otherwise be unviable; a compromise on fishing would almost certainly follow.

Thus, even though things look bleak right now, just like with the withdrawal agreement last year, a deal would ensure all the remaining issues – including the Internal Market Bill – can simply be shelved with no loss of face for either party.

For all that – if it is true – border friction is not going to go away. That is going to be the new normal,

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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