This vacuous Tory campaign feels like a particularly laboured episode of Catchphrase. We all know the “strong and stable government” line, as the Prime Minister parrots it at every opportunity. Her personal motto gains an extra layer of irony with each feeble U-turn and wobbly TV performance.
But in my view, the most ludicrous of all is “no deal is better than a bad deal”. I think even Noel Edmonds would be embarrassed at the way his signature show has been hijacked by the Brexiteers’ pompous logic.
In any negotiation, it is of course important to make a strong opening play. Let your partner know that you mean business and that you won’t give up concessions lightly. I get that. Two decades working in EU trade policy means I have seen overly-ambitious early boasts before. Never before, however, have I seen a country come to the negotiating table with a gun pointing to its own head, salivating with apparent delight at what it is about to do to itself.
The truth is that leaving the EU without a deal would be an unmitigated disaster for the UK economy and for jobs. It means falling back on World Trade Organisation tariffs, which although soft overall have some pretty painful spikes, such as 10 per cent on cars and 3 per cent on car components, and average tariffs of 14 per cent on agricultural products at a time when our farmers need it least.
Aside from tariffs, perhaps the most worrying factor of the no-deal scenario is the reintroduction of customs paperwork. As part of the EU customs union, this is something that British exporters never had to think about. No deal on customs means reams of extra red tape and costs on trade with our closest and largest partner by far.
Let me focus on one example. Our aerospace sector is a British high-end manufacturing success story, providing a quarter of a million skilled jobs in both large and small companies. Whether it is wings produced in Broughton, software in Bristol, engines in Derby, wheels and brakes in Dorset, or nuts and bolts in Lanark, these 3,000 odd companies fit into large and complex international supply chains that rely on speed and precision. Components cross EU borders numerous times before the plane is ready to transport its first passengers.
On the bright side, there is already a WTO agreement that guarantees zero tariffs on aerospace components. Yet, as I was told recently by a representative of the industry at an event on Brexit, they are instead worried about this paperwork clogging up the well-oiled multinational production line. This means extra certification, product standard requirements as well as what are called “rules of origin” obligations, which means proving that enough of the products’ parts and materials are British for the whole thing to be considered British, in trade terms. If it sounds complicated, it is. Technical work like this would require training a whole new generation of customs officials and massively expanding facilities at our main ports. Nightmare visions of lorries queuing for miles up Britain’s coastal roads will become a reality.
The industry rep said that even one minute’s delay getting through Rotterdam into Europe would make the hierarchy of the biggest firms, such as Airbus, completely reconsider their production facilities in the UK. For smaller firms, the risk is that they just won’t be able to cope with all the new administrative demands, cutting them off from the biggest players in the European market.
As an aside, if no deal is reached on the movement of citizens between the UK and the EU, this would also damage UK businesses, because big multinational companies need to move teams of engineers at a moment’s notice. Any time-consuming visa requirements will make Britain a much less attractive place to do business.
The Brexiteers have got at least one thing right. This will be a bad deal with the EU. In the sense that any agreement we get with our partners will be worse than membership of the single market which we presently enjoy. But a bad deal is still miles better than leaving Brussels empty-handed.
Theresa May and other formerly Remain-backing Tories know this. This is why it never sounds quite genuine coming from her mouth. The rallying “no deal” call is aimed at one audience only, the frothing backbenchers who secretly wanted this scenario all along. Absolute British sovereignty over all affairs, and damn the consequences. However, this is not what was promised in the campaign, and certainly not what has been promised since by David Davis, the Brexit secretary, who talked of an agreement with “the exact same benefits”. It is also not in the best interests of workers in the aerospace sector and their families and communities, along with the many other sectors that will be drastically affected.
These are the words of politicians who have lost touch with economic reality and will not have to bear the consequences of their actions. They must be stopped tomorrow.
David Martin is a Labour MEP for Scotland.