finance

Brexit has left us all at sea – even the fishing industry


Teething troubles? Bumps in the road? Pull the other one, Mr Gove. As the daily news from fishing crews, farmers, road hauliers, wine merchants, musicians and thousands of businesses up and down the land – not least in Northern Ireland – confirms, Brexit tier 3 is indeed a disaster. Far from having teething troubles that disappear, many of these businesses are having their commercial teeth extracted.

It becomes increasingly manifest by the day that this is a Conservative act of conscious economic self-harm which, in an ideal world, would be rescinded before things get a lot worse. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Brexit is not only a disaster: it is also plain stupid.

The great Johnson/Gove/Frost “deal” is unravelling in front of their own eyes – and, indeed, in front of the eyes of our friends in continental Europe. While British Brexiters seize every opportunity to blame Brussels for the chaos they themselves have engineered, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, points out that “there are mechanical, obvious, inevitable consequences when you leave the single market and that’s what the British wished to do”.

Or did they? Did the 37% of the electorate that voted to leave on that fatal June day four and a half years ago really wish to leave the single market? Did most of them even know what it was? Certainly, the Brexiter members of the cabinet did not know, and, as I have reported before, had to have the single market and the customs union explained to them by Sir Ivan Rogers, our former ambassador to the EU.

I think that the Brexiter Daniel (now Lord) Hannan did understand what the single market was. Hannan is not widely known to the general public but, as a sometime rightwing member of the European parliament, he was most influential in the Brexit cause.

However, I seem to recall that his motivation was all about this phantasmagoric notion of “sovereignty”, which so many Brexiters confuse with power. If I remember correctly, he wanted the UK to remain in the single market!

But it is leaving that market – regarded by my good Remainer friend Kenneth Clarke as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement – that is causing so much trouble. Brexit done? Sorry, those of you Leave-voting trawler crews now concerned about your future, but welcome to Brexit.

Now, the fishing industry was told by Michael Gove’s gang that the deal had increased its share of the catch entitlement in UK fishing waters by two thirds, whereas Tim Harford and his admirable BBC Radio 4 programme about statistics, More or Less, has established that the actual figure is 8%. No wonder Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office, has “had enough of experts”: they check up on the Brexiters’ mendacious claims.

What did Johnson, Gove and co claim? That Brexit would free us from all that Brussels red tape and wasteful bureaucracy. And what has the great deal achieved? The strangulation of cross-Channel and cross-Irish Sea trade, the erection of huge regulatory barriers in the UK, and an increase in costly, very British, bureaucracy.

Leaving perfectly sensible trading arrangements was always guaranteed to end in tears. We – or some of us – have done it to ourselves, but there was a time when the French were the suckers. Older readers will recall that in November 1806 Napoleon, with the Berlin decree, set up what was known as the continental blockade (blocus continental) – an embargo on trade with Britain applied by France and its allies. Britain managed to relocate much of its trade to the Americas, and French trade suffered badly. In effect, Napoleon shot himself in the foot, which is what Johnson is doing now.

President Biden and his team know this only too well. Wonderful, is it not, how Johnson has suddenly decided he has to cultivate his friend Donald Trump’s successor!

All this stuff about hoping that the UK will be Biden’s first port of call is cringe-making. As the man who headed Biden’s transition team, Ted Kaufman, said last week, the new president will be coming here in June for the G7 summit, which it happens to be our government’s turn to host. I have little doubt that Biden will be advising Johnson that it is time to cultivate a group of countries known as the European Union, rather than be telling them that they are not entitled to have an ambassador here.

I wonder whether, one day, any members of this Brexit-mad cabinet will write some repentant memoirs. If so, they might be tempted to quote one of the many great lines in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “We were a ghastly crew.”



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