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Brexit rears its head again as Covid wanes

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Geraint Talfan Davies
This piece was originally published in the Western Mail on 18th July.

This week, as the Covid tally has dropped, Brexit has reared its head once again.  

It never went away. It has been hiding in plain sight. 

The 30 June deadline for requesting an extension to the transition period came and went. The Government then breezily waved aside M Barnier’s sobering 34-page report of the lack of progress in the negotiations as well as his manifold questions about our readiness for what is to come in a little over five months time. 

After the first round of negotiations with the EU, the subsequent three rounds, themselves delayed, had to be held via video-conferencing. M Barnier issued a forbidding list that amounted to a catalogue of impending disruption in almost every sector of economic activity, not to mention a bonfire of travel rights in Europe that we have regarded as the natural order of things for more than four decades.  

He reminded us that this disruption would happen whether or not we reach a deal with the EU. It’s what happens when you try to disentangle 47-years of co-habitation. 

At home Michael Gove, the Government’s de facto chief executive to Boris Johnson’s chairman, announced the spending of more than £700 million on new border facilities that, as even he acknowledged, would not be in place by the end of this year. 

He was reminded of this slippage by no less than one of his Cabinet colleagues, Liz Truss MP, the Secretary of State for International Trade. In a blistering leaked letter that showed unmistakeable signs of panic, she let the cat out of the bag regarding the arrangements, or rather lack of arrangements for dealing with the Northern Ireland border. She was demanding assurances – lots of them. 

The border in this instance, she said, includes “EU-facing ports where the infrastructure to implement controls does not currently exist.” For you and me, that’s places like Holyhead and Fishguard. 

While we await these facilities Ms. Truss is worried that there are no plans either “to mitigate the risk of goods being circumvented from ports implementing full controls.”  Don’t be taken in by the circumlocutions – for you and me ‘circumventing’ means smuggling. 

It is at such borders that British businesses will fill in 215 million customs declarations each year (that’s nearly 600,000 a day) at an eye-watering annual cost, according to HMRC calculations, of £7 billion. And we’ll only need another 50,000 officials to manage the process. So much for ridding ourselves of the Brussels bureaucracy which, by the way, employs just less than 25,000 to run a continent.  

All in all, in the EU departure lounge, it seems things are not going swimmingly well. 

But this is to make light of a deadly serious matter. This week’s open letter from Wales for Europe to Welsh Conservative MPs – eight of whom were first elected only eight months ago – reminded them that the pandemic has not only taken a heavy toll on the health and lives of our people, but also on the ability of the UK Government to give the Brexit agenda the attention it deserves. This is becoming ever clearer by the day. 

Accompanying the letter were nearly three pages of promises lifted word for word from the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto and the EU-UK Political Declaration. The latter cover nearly 40 separate areas ranging from the broad issues of free trade to vitally important details on aviation and rail transport, carbon pricing, counter-terrorism, cyber security, anti-money-laundering, digital commerce, and health security to name but a few. 

Wales for Europe’s concern is that Messrs Johnson, Gove and Cummings have a propensity to disregard this sackful of promises, whenever it suits their purposes.  

Meanwhile the Covid-struck nation is in semi-lockdown – albeit with the keys left in the four national locks – listening to a rolling thunder of redundancies that reminds me of the early Thatcher years, when corporate press releases announcing job losses would land on news editors’ desks in a wholly predictable cluster each Friday. 

It’s worth recalling that at the time of the 2016 referendum, Trump had not been elected, relations with China had not descended into a new cold war, Huawei was being courted and Covid had not struck the entire globe. How many hits are the British public expected to take at same time? Is no-one adding up? 

When the roof is falling in one would have thought that a sensible householder would at least postpone an expensive redecoration of the lounge. 

These are matters that Welsh Conservative MPs should ponder seriously. After all, in the opinion polls the party has already slipped back from the high point it achieved in Wales at the end of last year. If it has aspirations to govern in Wales as well as in the UK it may just get away with being the party of Brexit, but it cannot afford to be confused with the ‘The Brexit Party’. 

Serious politicians do not close their eyes to mayhem in rest of the world in order to savour a dream of yesteryear. Whatever happened to Conservative pragmatism?  

Welsh MPs, of whatever party, have to have regard not just for the UK but also for our circumstances here in Wales, at the bottom of the UK’s economic league tables. As the Wales for Europe letters says, “We cannot now afford new burdens.” That was true last February. It is even more painfully true today. 

But, as if addicted to picking a fight, the Government also seems intent on yet another scrap, this time with the devolved administrations. 

Piqued at the superior performance of the three devolved nations in handling Covid, and realising belatedly that ‘Take back control’ will almost certainly be devoid of meaning on the international stage, it seems it is preparing its own consolation prize by planning to take back some of those controls that it wishes had never been given away. 

It is plainly irked by the legal powers that the devolved administrations enjoy, and will relish overriding those powers via international treaties that remain in its control. 

Now it is true that, having scrapped the over-arching framework of the EU, there is a need to create a new UK framework through which its constituent nations can organise the equitable management of these islands. But the problem is that our current constitutional arrangements are not fit for that purpose. 

A Government that was serious about tackling these issues would probably institute a Royal Commission that would consider these matters in the round, taking evidence from across the nation and a considerable amount of time. 

Instead we are to have a ‘Review of UK Government Union Capability’, conducted by Lord Dunlop, for two years a Conservative junior minister in the Scottish Office. He will also draw on his experience as an advisor to David Cameron and as a councillor with Horsham District Council. He was set to work a year ago and is expected to report this autumn. 

But any plan to get the four nations – Mr Johnson’s ‘awesome foursome’ – to work better together will struggle with our unhelpful constitutional architecture: first past the post voting, the royal prerogative, a second chamber with no legitimacy, including no formal representation of the four nations within the central legislature – unlike the USA’s Senate or Germany’s Bundesrat – and a structure of local and regional government in England that resembles an Emmental cheese. 

More important than Lord Dunlop’s work may be a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission that was promised in the Conservative manifesto but has yet to emerge. We must hope that this will be more than a means to abolish the Supreme Court to allow the executive, once again, to take back control.

by Geraint Talfan Davies