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It’s Brexit’s second birthday and the UK has nothing to celebrate

Food, fuel and staff shortages. Tensions with trading partners. Costly red tape. This is the reality of Boris Johnson’s fantasy – and he can’t say nobody warned him

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The party’s over: Brexiteers toast the UK’s departure from the EU. Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty

The party’s over: Brexiteers toast the UK’s departure from the EU. Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty

David Frost looks on as Boris Johnson approves the Brexit deal

David Frost looks on as Boris Johnson approves the Brexit deal

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said soy sauce would be cheaper after a trade deal with Japan, despite Britain's bestselling soy sauce coming from the Netherlands

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said soy sauce would be cheaper after a trade deal with Japan, despite Britain's bestselling soy sauce coming from the Netherlands

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The party’s over: Brexiteers toast the UK’s departure from the EU. Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty

You may be surprised to learn that the British government has a Brexit Opportunities Unit. You will be less surprised to hear that Brexit “opportunities” have proved elusive. In the real world beyond British government fantasies, the UK has discovered the main Brexit opportunities include the opportunity to blow away 4pc of GDP, the opportunity for trucks to form enormous queues at Dover and the opportunity for Boris Johnson to witter endlessly about “Global Britain” while annoying the UK’s closest neighbours, trading partners, friends and allies. It wasn’t always like this.

Once upon a time, British governments might have been boring or bone-headed, but most were competent. The UK’s leaders lied only occasionally. But over the past six years of the Conservative Party’s Brexit psychodrama, people have been swamped by delusions of English exceptionalism, “taking back control” and Britannia once again ruling the waves.

Voters were famously assured by Johnson that Brexit meant they would “have our cake and eat it”. By July 2019, he was even more optimistic: “Our mission is to deliver Brexit… for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our great United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on Earth.” There’s that world-famous Etonian modesty. Unfortunately, in Brexitland, as in Wonderland, there was cake yesterday, cake tomorrow, while cake today is stuck on a pallet awaiting customs clearance in Calais.

And it’s not just cake that’s off. Brexit negotiator David Frost quit last month with Brexit still not “done”. It’s easy to see why. In 2019, Ivan Rogers , the former British chief diplomat to the EU, warned that Brexit would be a process, not an event. The process is interminable. By December 2020, Frost declared victory and claimed his Brexit deal was “excellent”. It began to unravel almost immediately. Faced with renegotiating his “excellent” Northern Ireland protocol and other minor details on which peace, security and good governance depend, Frost melted away.

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David Frost looks on as Boris Johnson approves the Brexit deal

David Frost looks on as Boris Johnson approves the Brexit deal

David Frost looks on as Boris Johnson approves the Brexit deal

Failure in British politics is often rewarded. Massive failure is rewarded massively. Frost is now Lord Frost, lecturing British people that there is no real benefit to wearing masks during the pandemic, demonstrating an expertise in virology unknown to anyone who has actually studied the subject. Meanwhile, Johnson complains that “nobody” told him there was a boozy party going on in his garden in Downing Street. Presumably this was the same “nobody” who failed to point out that if he moved the Irish border to the Irish Sea after a chat with Leo Varadkar in 2019, Northern Ireland’s unionists wouldn’t be happy.

The new person in charge of Brexit negotiations is foreign secretary Liz Truss. Previously the trade secretary, she boasted of negotiating the 2020 UK-Japan trade deal with reference to a TV programme. “The bakers used a lot of soya sauce in the first challenge on [The Great British Bake Off],” she tweeted, “so it’s a good thing it will be made cheaper thanks to our trade deal with Japan.”

But “nobody” seems to have told Truss that her ‘new’ UK-Japan trade deal was copied from the existing EU-Japan trade deal. And “nobody” speaks of “soya” sauce. Cooks call it soy sauce. And “nobody” — except on Google — could find out that Britain’s most popular soy sauce isn’t made in Japan. It’s made in the Netherlands. Since Brexit pushed the pound down, imports from the Netherlands cost more. “Nobody”, clearly, has a lot to answer for, and yet “nobody” will be blamed.

Patriotic symbol

The UK formally left the EU at 11pm two years ago, on January 31, 2020. Boris Johnson planned to celebrate by ringing that great patriotic symbol, Big Ben. It proved instead to be a symbol of chronic incompetence. After years of neglect, Big Ben was being renovated. The bell didn’t work. Johnson blustered he was “working up a plan so people can bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”. When he says he has “a plan,” you know he is lying. He had a plan for a “garden bridge” in London, for an airport on the Thames estuary, a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland, a plan for “levelling up” the UK, and, of course, to “Get Brexit Done”. Like all Johnson “plans”, the Big Ben crowdfunding was a wizard wheeze with lashings of ginger beer, and other people’s money, much of it from a few super-rich Brexit backers. But “nobody” told Johnson that one telephone call to the House of Commons authorities would establish that a big cash bung cannot bong a broken Big Ben bell.

Such stories may be trivial, but that’s the point. They reveal the gap in a trivial man’s deceptive rhetoric compared with Brexit reality, and the nonexistent strategic planning at the heart of the UK government. Serial failures were, and continue to be, inevitable.

“Brexit” is now the love that dare not speak its name. Back in 2018, prime minister Theresa May planned to celebrate leaving the EU in the spirit of the post-war 1951 Festival of Britain. Nicknamed the Festival of Brexit, it would cost £120m, “celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent” and mark the UK’s departure from the EU as a “moment of national renewal”. But the organisers never refer to it as the Festival of Brexit. It’s called Unboxed. When it opens later this year, attractions are set to include a decommissioned offshore platform from the North Sea, a celebration of British weather (seriously) and the largest grow-your-own food project of modern times. Grow-your-own food has resonance since food shortages have been reported frequently in British supermarkets, along with vegetables rotting in fields and fruit rotting on trees.

There have, of course, been desperate attempts by the Brexit believers to insist all such problems are caused by Covid-19. But the pandemic by definition affects the entire world. Brexit is a British-only “opportunity” causing uniquely British problems. And let’s also end the deceit that “nobody” predicted the Brexit failures. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of economists, trade experts, politicians, journalists, business owners and ordinary blokes like me — in a 2019 book called Brexit Without the Bullshit — predicted fairly accurately exactly how bad Brexit would be. I called it “Brexcrement,” although Johnson government incompetence has been even worse than my worst predictions.

It was predictable that British shoppers would endure incidents of shelves being empty of basic foods, but few predicted some supermarkets would cover empty shelves with glossy photographs of the missing products. Many of us predicted that EU27 workers would leave the UK, but the serious British shortage of HGV drivers (worse than in other countries and leading to a fuel crisis at petrol stations) was a surprise. Lack of hospital and care workers was also widely predicted. So was the shortage of vets. Now in 2022 some veterinary surgeries — including one near me, where two vets were Italian — have closed practices and others have stopped taking new clients. All those predictions were obvious because the facts were publicly available.

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Foreign secretary Liz Truss said soy sauce would be cheaper after a trade deal with Japan, despite Britain's bestselling soy sauce coming from the Netherlands

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said soy sauce would be cheaper after a trade deal with Japan, despite Britain's bestselling soy sauce coming from the Netherlands

Foreign secretary Liz Truss said soy sauce would be cheaper after a trade deal with Japan, despite Britain's bestselling soy sauce coming from the Netherlands

Before Brexit, 63pc of workers for the British Meat Processors Association and almost 100pc of those working for the British Summer Fruits association were from the EU27. By spring 2021, millions of commercially grown daffodils and other flowers destined for florists were left unpicked. Last summer, a farming company based on England’s south coast, Barfoots of Botley, reported that 750,000 courgettes had been left to rot in the fields. Scottish shellfish exporters were furious that red tape delaying exports to France meant their valuable catches of scallops were wasted. The National Farmers Union described a post-Brexit trade deal with Australia as “one-sided” and “damaging”, with British beef and sheep farmers furious that their businesses will be undercut by Australian farming methods regarded as unacceptable in the EU and UK.

University students have been hit by the British government’s decision to pull out of the EU-wide Erasmus programme. British universities in October last year reported a huge (and predicted) drop in the number of EU27 students coming to Britain. The University of East Anglia said their EU student numbers had dropped by half in 2021, and that this was the picture “across the sector nationally”. British tourists have been hit by (predicted) changes to travel rules and British residents in EU27 countries have endured a variety of difficulties. Brits can no longer use the faster EU lines at airports.

Despite the obvious reality, the British government publicly retains its enduring fantasies about “easy” trade deals and the UK as Singapore-on-Thames.

By 2021, Johnson was still blustering about “solid steps” towards a trade deal with the US. But again “nobody” appears to have told Johnson what any British diplomat, member of the US Congress, or indeed any trade expert has always known. A comprehensive US trade deal will always get bogged down in Congress, and simply will not happen with Joe Biden’s administration if Britain blunders into even more serious problems in Northern Ireland. When the US recently ended Trump-era tariffs on EU steel and aluminium exports to the US, it did not do the same for the UK. You could call it the new post-Brexit “special relationship”.

For a flavour of just one of the disastrous consequences of Brexit, a few months ago I chaired a discussion between politicians and music industry performers, artists, technicians and support staff. In 2019, the British Department of Culture estimated that creative industries contributed £115.9bn or 5.9pc of the UK economy. Yet Brexit has imperiled the careers of many of these most creative British people because their own government failed to understand — yet again — what Brexit means in reality. It means a crippling bureaucracy involving “carnets” (paperwork) for musical instruments, and hugely problematic “cabotage” (more paperwork) rules for British trucks full of musical gear crossing to EU venues.

Unfairness

Elton John spoke for many British artists when he said Brexit is “a nightmare… to young people just starting a career, it’s crucifying… The government are philistines. We’ve got used to governments — especially the British government — just telling us lies every day, and I don’t feel OK with that. I’m 74 years of age and I just don’t get this unfairness and this ridiculous ability to lie through your teeth every f***ing minute of the day.” Elton said he was “ashamed” of his country and “sick to death of Brexit. I am a European. I am not a stupid, colonial, imperialist English idiot.”

One year after Johnson’s Brexit fantasies hit reality, if “nobody” can find serious opportunities for the Brexit Opportunities Unit, here’s one. It’s for Scottish and other nationalists who recognise the tectonic plates of the union of the United Kingdom are shifting.

In 2021, the Conservative peer Stephen Green and two former top British civil servants produced a pamphlet, Unwritten Rule, about the failing union. It argues that “the United Kingdom faces a constitutional crisis that could lead to its break-up within the next few years”. Noting “fundamental challenges” to political cohesion, the authors conclude that “confidence in the integrity of the British state is at its lowest level since the Republic of Ireland became independent 100 years ago”.

That’s an opportunity, or a danger, depending on your viewpoint. Either way, do not believe that “nobody” told Boris Johnson. But Johnson, of course, doesn’t need expert advice, because he knows everything already.

Gavin Esler is author of ‘Brexit Without The Bullshit’ (2019) of ‘How Britain Ends’ (2020) on the possible break-up of the UK


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