Leader: A very British farce

From a failed attempt to organise a lorry traffic jam to the award of a ferry contract to a company with no ships, energy and funding is being diverted from Britain’s genuine problems. 

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On 7 January, the British government tried and failed to organise a traffic jam. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, Manston airport in Kent would be commandeered as a parking facility for at least 6,000 lorries. Ministers, however, were only able to assemble 89 lorries for a live rehearsal (paying each driver £550 for the pleasure).

Seldom has any government so successfully fused tragedy and farce. A few days before the attempted pile-up, the hapless Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, defended the decision to award a £13.8m contract to charter extra ferries to Seaborne Freight, a new company that has no ships. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has boasted of the UK becoming the world’s largest purchaser of fridges in order to stockpile drugs. And the Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has assured voters that 3,500 troops are “on standby” (though for what purpose is less clear).

This absurd spectacle is absorbing the energy and funding that should be devoted to Britain’s genuine problems: a chaotic new welfare system (Universal Credit), an understaffed health service (there are 100,000 vacancies in the NHS), an over-centralised state, a lack of adequately paid jobs (a record number of working families are in poverty), crumbling infrastructure and a disturbing rise in rough sleeping (which has increased by 169 per cent since 2010). The profound social and economic discontent that underlay the 2016 Leave vote is being carelessly neglected.

The Brexiteers used to insist that no deal was not an option – because Britain would invariably get a good deal from the European Union. In July 2017, Boris Johnson declared: “There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.” The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, boasted in the same month that a new trade agreement with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. 

Yet having rejected every conceivable deal with the EU, the Brexiteers are now normalising no deal. Mr Johnson insists that Britain would “do very well” without one and has said that voters endorsed such an outcome in the 2016 referendum. “I think we are heading to WTO and I think WTO is nothing to be frightened of,” Jacob Rees-Mogg has pronounced, with the insouciance of someone whose personal wealth is estimated at £100m.

Trading under WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules, as an increasing number of Tory MPs propose, sounds innocuous but its consequences would not be. The UK would be left as the only state in the world acting on this basis and incur punitive tariffs (Mauritania, which previously held this status, has recently signed 20 preferential trade agreements).

No deal, then, would not be a comfortable outcome for the United Kingdom but rather an irresponsible act of economic self-harm. Libertarian Leavers aspire to pursue their ideological fantasy of “creative destruction” with other people’s money. Yet, by insisting that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, Theresa May carelessly legitimised such logic. We have entered a period of damage limitation and only a fool would predict the outcome.

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown

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