EU Referendum

Brexit: panic is the right thing to do


As the media start to pick up the stories of shortage of food and vital medicines arising from a "no deal" Brexit, one wonders what it will take for the likes of the IEA to express any remorse over their part in making it happen.

Certainly, if Mark Littlewood, director of the IEA had any shame, after this report, now would be a good time to show it. Touting for donations in exchange for access to Ministers, even if not strictly illegal, is an abnegation of democracy, and an affront to all right-thinking people.

However, since the great clean-out after the Chequers "summit" – with the resignations of Davis, Johnson and Baker, there are only Gove and Fox to hold the standard aloft for the right-wing free trade paradigm. The influence of that group within government is considerably diminished.

Nevertheless, this latest "cash for access" scandal does again highlight the sinister role of Sanker "Snake Oil" Singham, and especially with Littlewood, albeit unwittingly, admitting that he had been used as a "slight shill" to conceal some of Singham's meetings with Baker.

The way this was done is that Littlewood would tag along at meetings alongside Singham, so the minister could officially record visits as "Mark Littlewood and staff", thus reducing the number of times Singham's presence would have to be recorded by name.

The fact that this was even thought necessary tells us something sinister is going on. And when much of the material produced by Singham and his team is so obviously technically unsound – which would be rejected by any sensible person – one really has to wonder how this group has acquired such influence at the heart of government.

If this reflects the way government is run now, then we are moving into a post-democracy period, without ever having really enjoyed a fully functioning democracy.

The sense of unease is further reinforced by the interim report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on its investigation into "Disinformation and ‘fake news". And while one doesn't necessarily have to buy into the entirety of their "fake news" thesis, the reference to Mr Cummings's "contemptuous behaviour" - unprecedented in the history of this Committee's inquiries – leaps out of the page.

Hailed in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum as the genius who won the campaign for "leave", Cummings is very much tarnished goods these days, especially after recent disclosures from Facebook about the nature and timing of Vote Leave's targeted adverts.

Even one of the latest recruits to the May government, Dominic Raab, is getting a bad press with accusations of bullying – even if from a less than unimpeachable source. And it goes without saying that the erstwhile foreign secretary is up to no good, having breached the ministerial code in returning to his Telegraph column.

Altogether, we get a sense of fin de siècle, the same sort of Tory sleaze that brought down John Major's government in 1997, when so many people were sick to the hind teeth of the Conservatives that they couldn't wait to see the back of them.

The difference between then and now, of course, is that back in 1997, we had a fresh, young Labour leader in the form of Tony Blair and his punchline of "things can only get better". Looking at the grey sleaziness of the Major administration, that wasn't hard to believe.

Now, by way of a complete contrast, we have Corbyn – probably the only thing keeping Mrs May in office – apart from a terminally split Conservative Party where no single faction can command a majority and the groups so loathe each other that they could never unite behind a single challenger.

That leaves ordinary voters (and the rest of us) in a sort of no-man's land, disenfranchised, disillusioned and marooned by the incompetence of the political classes and the low-information media. The idea of a democratic vote is meaningless. There is nothing to vote for. We don't need whiffling academics to tell us we've got a problem.

With parliament having closed down for their holidays though, that leaves idle hacks with nothing very much to report – which probably explains why we're getting a rash of food shortage stories, complete with a headline for the Guardian proclaiming: "Brexit provides the perfect ingredients for a national food crisis".

Having ignored the potential problems in cross-border trade in food, it comes as no surprise to find that the media is now overstating the problems – or at least misdiagnosing them.

A point I've made several times now is that any an interruptions in our supply of food, post-Brexit, are entirely preventable. As long as the government keeps our ports clear of outbound traffic, unless it can be shown that their consignments will be cleared once they arrive at the EU border, the flow of goods into the country (and medicines, for that matter) will be relatively secure.

Indeed, as it may well prove impossible to export some foods to the EU, there may well be local surpluses and food normally produced for export is diverted onto the home market. Only later, as producers go out of business, will we experience shortages in certain commodities.

As it stands, the biggest risk is probably panic buying. But that is a real enough risk. Given the almost complete loss in confidence in the government's handling of Brexit, there is likely to be a significant number of people building their stockpiles. Enough people doing this can cause shortages in the shops even when there is no blockage in the pipeline.

That assumes that the government has got and is able to put an effective contingency in place. If it does, we could end up with the worst of all possible worlds: shortages of some commodities and panic buying.

There is also no particular reason why we should experience any shortages of medicines, whether home-produced or made abroad – including those, like insulin, which are made in Europe. Come Brexit day, the EU approval system will still be recognised by the UK government so, as long as the ports are clear, imports should get a free passage.

If the worst comes to the worst, emergency supplies can be brought in by military cargo aircraft, or by civil aircraft operating under humanitarian aid licenses, operating out of military airfields.

Perversely, in this, it is the EEA members who will have the greater problem, in that they will no longer allow the import of products carrying market authorisations issued by the UK authority. Where disruption to the UK system might occur is where we rely on medicines made abroad using British ingredients, which are no longer available.

But any confidence in there being continuity of supply has to rest on the belief that the UK government is capable of formulating effective contingency plans and of implementing them in good time. But then, when you see the quality of people in government, and those advising it, it would be extremely unwise to place any trust in systems continuing to work.

What gives us faint hope is that EU Member States will variously suffer from supply interruptions. Whether they be Spanish vegetable growers who will suddenly lose their markets, aircraft manufacturers who will be unable to secure much-needed components or assemblies, or – as in the case mentioned above – patients in urgent need of medicines, there will be a strong constituency which wants Brexit to be trouble-free.

A graphic example of this comes in a statement from Pascal Lamy who warns Ireland that a "no deal" Brexit could be catastrophic, to the extent that the country might need emergency aid to tide it over the worst.

Lamy also dismisses the idea that there won't be a border after Brexit. Exiting the internal market has a cost, he says, so there is no way there won't be a border. "If you exit the internal market you have to have a border".

Asked if there are any borders anywhere in the world where there is no physical infrastructure, he replied: "No. The most open systems of trade which exist are either in South Africa, where there is the South African Customs Union since the early 20th century, and there is a border. And if you look at for instance Norway-Sweden, there is a border. "So the notion that there would be no border is pie in the sky".

For all these reasons, this is why I expect the EU to devise some sort of transition period, even if it means making unilateral concessions, just to buy time and allow more preparation.

Sadly though, we must conclude that no amount of planning or organisation could even begin to compensate for the incompetence of the May government and the people advising her and her ministers. Anyone who lets people like Sanker Singham within a hundred miles of Whitehall has to be all bad.

Thus, whatever the logical part of one's brain might tell one, there are times when panic is the right thing to do.