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27 September 2021

Whatever happened to Brexit’s sunlit uplands?

Ministers are saying “this won’t be as bad as the winter of discontent”. I dread to think what they’ll promise next.

By Jonn Elledge

In the summer of 2018, 25 months after the point when it was too late for anyone to change their mind about this whole leaving the EU thing, the then Brexit secretary Dominic Raab received some of the uncomplimentary headlines with which he would later become so familiar, after reassuring a select committee that the government would ensure there were “adequate food supplies” after Britain left the European Union. 

Even then, this didn’t feel like a great sign. A little over two years earlier, Raab had been telling the public that Brexit would make us all richer. Now he was reassuring us that we probably wouldn’t starve to death. It was like watching an air hostess cheerfully announce that a clear majority of this airline’s flights landed safely, several minutes after you’ve started to taxi. 

What we didn’t realise then, however, was that we would look back on the promises of adequate food as a sunlit upland, a day whose like we shall not see again – because looking at the supermarkets of Great Britain at the moment, it’s not altogether clear that this is a promise which Raab’s government has been able to keep. Empty shelves and abandoned product lines abound; food prices are on the rise. OK, it seems unlikely we will run out of calories, but one foundational rule of politics is that if you find yourself arguing over the exact definition of the words “adequate food” then things are probably not going swimmingly.

[see also: Energy prices, petrol, rent and food: What’s driving the UK’s cost of living crisis?] 

There are, if you look carefully, some other subtle signs that all is not well in the British economy. Ministers have repeatedly denied that Christmas could be cancelled, after the British Poultry Council warned of looming shortages. As many as one in six jobs in the industry have been left unfilled as a result of European workers leaving the country: this is great news for chickens and turkeys, but not for those hoping to eat them.

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In an obvious attempt to distract from the complete non-existence of US-UK trade talks, government-friendly newspapers were briefed about the possibility of the UK joining the US-Canada-Mexico trade deal, only for No 10 to deny there was any such plan once it transpired the US wasn’t having any of that either. Last week the Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro – not, frankly, the sort of man on whose kindness you’d hope to find yourself relying – claimed that Boris Johnson had asked him for an emergency food deal to help Britain out of its supply hole. The government has denied that, too. But since at least two allied governments have directly contradicted the Prime Minister’s version of events of late (the Americans over whether or not Johnson and Biden had discussed Northern Ireland; the Dutch over Johnson’s claims that their prime minister Mark Rutte was seeking to mediate between London and Brussels over the same issue) it’s at least possible that ministers are telling porkies about this, too. 

If the last 11 years have taught us anything, of course, it’s that many British people don’t give a fig about whether other British people have enough food, so let’s consider instead an altogether more salient crisis. Last week, BP, Esso and Tesco all said they would be closing some of their petrol stations because the shortage of HGV drivers meant that they didn’t have any petrol. 

Ministers have advised the public not to panic buy, which always helps, and one, the previously unknown small business minister Paul Scully, reassuringly told Times Radio “look, this isn’t a 1970s thing at all”. This comment was not only reminiscent of “adequate food”: it also gave news reporters the excuse they’d so clearly been seeking to start putting “winter of discontent” in their URLs. At any rate, much of the country spent the weekend queuing for petrol, although whether this was technically panic buying, or merely a rational response to everyone else having joined the queue, is not exactly clear. If you’re arguing about the definition of “panic buying”, things probably aren’t going all that well, either.

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[see also: What happens if the UK runs out of petrol?]

Is Brexit really to blame? Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who, in a mark of quite how far we have fallen, now counts as one of the more reassuring faces to see on a television screen, says otherwise: there are other factors at work, not least the pandemic, and other countries, including Germany and Poland, are facing their own shortages of HGV drivers, too. The surge in natural gas prices, which has hit CO2 production and thus the food supply chain, is certainly a global phenomenon. In this telling of events, Brexit is a mere incidental detail.

Maybe. But it is striking that, in countries which didn’t tear up half a century of trade relationships for political reasons, global problems such as higher gas prices are not translating into empty shelves and abandoned petrol pumps. “Adequate food”, they promised us. Now it’s “this won’t be as bad as the winter of discontent”. I dread to think what they’ll be promising next. 

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