0623 GMT January 16, 2021
“There is a shortage of Percy Pig sweets in Marks and Spencer: Now we know Brexit is real. And Michael Gove, the minister for ensuring everything runs smoothly, has been on TV warning of the “potential for significant disruption”.
Until now, the idea of trade “friction” has been an abstract concept, hard to imagine, not least because the EU trade treaty is so unusual in purposely making trade more difficult. As minister for ensuring things run smoothly, Gove was in the awkward position of preparing for arrangements that hadn’t been finalized, affecting systems so complex he couldn’t easily predict where the worst problems would happen – and all for a policy he had championed.
It turns out that queues of lorries in Kent are not – or not yet – the main problem. That may be because hauliers are waiting to see how the border checks work before they resume sending the usual volumes of traffic through Dover and Folkestone. Instead, it is the rules-of-origin admin that is causing trouble, requiring tariffs to be imposed on some goods imported to the UK and re-exported to the EU. “Tariff-free doesn’t feel so tariff-free when you look at the small print,” said Steve Rowe, M&S chief executive.
Thus DPD, the courier company, has suspended deliveries to the EU for five days while it gets on top of the paperwork (although I assume it’s mostly computerized). Rachel Reeves, Gove’s Labour shadow, has been quick with the press release: “This government said it was prepared for a smooth transition – but instead major carriers like DPD are left wrangling with completely overwhelmed systems without any help.”
On the whole, though, the air is mercifully free of told you SOS. In part, that is because there is a lot else going on, from the dying days of Donald Trump’s kitsch empire in Washington to the state of coronavirus emergency in London. But mostly I think it is because even the most ardent Remainers recognize that getting to grips with new procedures is mostly a temporary setback rather than a fundamental argument against leaving the EU.
The fundamental argument is that, even when we have adjusted to the new rules, and to the series of specific disablements, such as not being able to export live eels or seed potatoes, trade with the EU will be slightly more difficult. Tony Connelly, the brilliant Europe editor of Irish broadcaster RTE, has written about “the new dawn of trade friction” for those who are interested in the detail, but the simple truth is easily extracted: that making trade more difficult makes it more expensive and imposes a cost on the British economy.
Here I think some Remainers get ahead of themselves – although it was interesting that Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP who wants to rejoin the EU, this week accepted that this is not a “realistic” policy for the party for at least five years. The effect of the temporary disruptions to imports and exports will dissipate, while the long-term costs of Brexit will be invisible. Once M&S has sorted out the logistics of Percy Pig distribution, most people won’t notice much change as a result of leaving the EU. From the point of view of Rejoiners, the problem is that Brexit will make us poorer than we would otherwise have been, not poorer than we are now. It might take decades for people to feel that they are slipping behind their continental and Irish neighbors.
For that reason, the well-known opinion polling findings suggesting that a clear majority now think Britain was wrong to vote to leave may not mean that much. More important now is how many people would go so far as to support an application to rejoin. We got the first hint of that before the EU deal was done, when Kantar asked people between 10 and 14 December: “If a new referendum was held on EU membership, how would you vote?” Excluding the large number (19 per cent) who said they wouldn’t vote – presumably mostly in protest against the idea of a new referendum – or who didn’t know, people were split down the middle, with 51 per cent saying “stay out” and 49 per cent saying “apply to join”.
I suspect that support for rejoining is wide but shallow, in that the numbers who think rejoining is a priority – or even that it would be a realistic possibility – would be much lower. Nevertheless, support for rejoining is high enough to make me wonder again at Ed Davey’s refusal to identify the Liberal Democrats unambiguously with the policy.
I doubt that public support for rejoining the EU will grow much in the next few years, but the question still has the power to divide parties – although we have now reached one of those crossover points where henceforth it will be the opposition parties that are divided while the Conservatives are united.
As it is, Davey and Keir Starmer are jointly leading the Remainer shuffle away from their convictions, both hoping that if they don’t say anything their parties will stop banging on about Europe. David Cameron can tell them how well that is likely to go.