Richard North, 14/10/2021  

With Northern Ireland back in the headlines, I'm almost tempted to write about something completely different, such as the mating habits of the lesser spotted shrew, if there is such a thing, just to register my protest about how this stunningly overstated issue has been allowed to occupy such a dominant place in our politics.

The situation is not made any better by the rantings of an ex-government employee whose compulsive attention-seeking has just sufficient plausibility to make it attractive to weak minds, and to engage those with a limited grasp of the issues.

One can only hope, therefore, with the adults back in the room, EU’s offer to scrap up to 80 per cent of checks on goods entering Northern Ireland that we are on our way to a temporary resolution of the issues (nothing is ever permanent, when it comes to Northern Ireland) – enough at least to take them out of the headlines and return the province to the obscurity that it so profoundly deserves.

Had I been capable of dredging up enough interest, I might have been tempted to review the detail of the Commission proposals, but the recently ennobled David Frost might be treating these as a "starter for ten", seeking to imprint his mark on them in much the same way a dog might urinate on its bounds, to mark out its territory. Thus, what we see is not necessarily what we will get.

Certainly, that is the way the Telegraph seems to be reporting the latest developments, with the headline: "Let the talks begin, says Lord Frost as EU offers new Northern Ireland deal".

Frost, thereby, seems to be assuming that the Commission's offer is mere foreplay, a precursor to another interminable round of talks which will allow him to gain further concessions – particularly on the role of the ECJ - thus affording him the opportunity to ride off victorious in the general direction of the sunlit uplands, to the applause of General Johnson and his merry band of nonentities.

What the Commission gets out of this is anyone's guess, although the Independent is bearing on its front page, the legend: "EU prepares for worst as Brexit divide remains".

Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic wants Frost to engage "earnestly and intensively", when they meet tomorrow for renewed talks. But Frost is merely saying that he will look "seriously and constructively” at the proposals "over the coming weeks".

Frost is drawing his line in the sand on the removal of ECJ jurisdiction over the deal. Thus, we are told, he is setting the scene for a "Christmas showdown", with observers unsure whether the EU's initiative has provided enough "wriggle room" for Frost and his boss to back down.

This is almost a question of "who cares, wins". The chances of this drama gripping the nation through into the festive season seems to be rather less than the UK government meeting its quota for foreign lorry drivers applying for temporary visas.

So far, we learn, just 20 have been issued to HGV drivers from abroad, with about 300 applications received – somewhat short of the 5,000 that the government is prepared to offer to tide us over until the end of next February.

Meanwhile, multi-millionaire Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of Bernard Matthews and 2 Sisters Food Group, is calling for a "reset" on pricing to reflect the true cost of producing food – presumably to top up his personal fortune, where adverse trading conditions have left poor man's fortune dwindling down to his last £500 million.

None of us could possibly disagree that we need lectures from multi-millionaires about the price of food, with Boparan sternly admonishing us that rising inflation was "decaying the food sector's supply chain", while complaining that the government cannot fix the problem.

"The days when you could feed a family of four with a £3 chicken are coming to an end", he says. "We need transparent, honest pricing. This is a reset and we need to spell out what this will mean", he adds, telling us that, "Food is too cheap, there's no point avoiding the issue. In relative terms, a chicken today is cheaper to buy than it was 20 years ago".

In a different universe, I probably would agree with him, although the message coming from the mouth of a multi-millionaire, in whose poultry plants slave workers have been found, is a little hard to take.

Nevertheless, this and parallel issues, in the run up to Christmas, might be more likely to seize the popular imagination than the arcane matter of whether the ECJ has the final say over interpretation of some technical aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Similarly, people might be more entertained by the growing backlog of imports at Felixstowe, estimated to be worth in the order of £1.5 billion.

Felixstowe used to be the poster child for the efficiency of Britain's private ports system, but it has been dogged by problems with its cargo handling software which have taken the shine off its reputation. The immediate problem this time is the backlog of containers, apparently caused by the shortage of HGV drivers, delaying some of the docking of large ships and increasing unloading times.

Shipping company Maersk says that congestion at the port has been building for the past two weeks, forcing the company to dock as many as one in three of its large vessels at continental ports such as Rotterdam. Containers then destined for the UK will then, presumably, be offloaded and despatched to the UK on HGVs, further intensifying the driver shortage.

Even now, while the Westminster bubble is obsessing over the Protocol, the Mirror is running the "shortages crisis" on its front page, with the headline, "Rush to save Xmas", the story warning consumers not to delay buying their Christmas gifts.

Behind all this, the gas crisis grumbles on. Yet another two energy suppliers have bitten the dust, making 14 so far this year, with no indication that they will be the last. And, despite assurances to the contrary from Kwasi Modo, billionaire industrialist Jim Ratcliffe is warning that Britain could run out of gas in a cold winter, forcing industry to shut down.

I suppose we might be ill-disposed to take such warnings from a billionaire, but this one is the boss of Ineos, the petrochemicals giant. From this vantage point, he says that gas prices were likely to remain high throughout the winter and that it was possible there would be insufficient supplies for consumers and businesses alike.

Actually, such is the risk that this blog is not accepting assurances that energy supplies are secure over the winter. If we escape power cuts, it will be more by accident than design. We are taking measures, therefore, to ensure continuity of service, even if the electricity supply goes down.

Bluntly, it is such real-life problems such as these – and the attendant expense – which are of far more concern than the posturing of Frost over matters which should have been settled long ago, and which have simply gone on far too long.

But there is perhaps a new peril in the willingness of the EU to make concessions over Northern Ireland. One might see the Commission using the reduced checks on goods as leverage to secure a similar deal for EU goods entering the UK – thereby locking in the trading disadvantages suffered by agricultural and other sectors.

At that point, farmers – and the rest of us – might rediscover that inalienable law of the universe: no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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