The attack of the killer cucumbers (or not)

When everyone actually <em>is</em> going to die, no one will believe the tabloids.

Bloody foreign bacteria, coming over here, infecting us. Yes, the latest panic-porn scare story being fed to us is the tale of what the Daily Express refers to, with typically unhyperbolic restraint, as KILLER FOOD BUG.

The new strain of e.coli, initially thought to be hidden in Spanish cucumbers, caused a bit of a problem for our beloved papers. It's hard to panic about something that's happening in another country, a few rogue cucumbers killing off some Germans. Where's the jeopardy in that? But now things are serious. Now the big red button has been well and truly pushed. Because it's coming over here.

MUTANT E.COLI IS IN BRITAIN, shrieked the Daily Mail this morning, with all the calmness of the housekeeper in the Tom & Jerry cartoons standing on a stool. This is the story, whether we like it or not, whether it's scary or not: the deadly bug is coming here, to infect us and kill us. 7 BRITS HIT BY 'KILLER' CUCUMBERS, roared the Daily Star, ignoring the evidence that the new strain of bacteria is not believed to have come from cucumbers after all, but pointing out that now British people have been infected instead of Germans, it's time to get serious.

It's not unlike other stories and narratives our popular papers like to peddle - foreign invaders, crossing the border at will, causing widespread destruction. Sometimes it's immigrants; sometimes it's scary invading critters like ladybirds or jellyfish or squirrels; today it's bacteria.

This year's Icelandic ash cloud proved disappointingly unapocalyptic, so this scare has come along at the right time, with just enough promise of peril and just enough anxiety about our shores being invaded by foreign nasties to keep us all interested. Perhaps this is the scare that will have legs and become the new BSE; I think that's the hope, anyway. All too often, these things come and go, and disappear off the radar pretty rapidly when they aren't sufficiently terrifying.

You may not remember tabloid panic about campylobacter, back in 2009, for example - but that made the front pages. The Express splashed with it back in October that year and the Mail chipped in too. "Killer chickens on our high streets" has been kicked around every now and then since, entirely coincidentally happening on relatively slow news days when there isn't much else - asylum seekers, the BBC, political correctness having definitely gone mad - to worry about.

Now it could be the case, and I'm not saying it isn't, that there genuinely is something really worth worrying about with the latest scare. But it's hard to tell. We get these panic stories force fed to us, like Robert Morley having his beloved pet poodles stuffed down his throat by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood; and it's difficult, as a punter, to know which are the ones that should cause us genuine concern.

Perhaps it would help if papers could have a code, a "safe word" that would make us realise that this is a properly scary thing, rather than a pretend scary thing - maybe if they wrote the headlines in blood red, that would mean this story really is something to worry about, rather than something to worry a bit about then forget about. "You know all the times we said this or that might kill you or give you cancer, and we were just kind of exaggerating? Well this one is really dangerous, really dangerous, honest", they could say, to put us at ease - or rather not. The irony is, when Godzilla does turn up at Dover, and the tabloids warn us, we'll all think they were pulling our legs.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.