An international logistics expert has urged British businesses to keep their eyes on the Brexit ball, despite the government apparently trying to reduce public attention on the issue.
Adam Johnson, director of Leeds-based Tudor International Freight, said government messaging had emerged since last month’s general election effectively echoing the Conservatives’ campaign slogan that returning the party to power would mean “getting Brexit done” when the UK leaves the EU on 31 January.
This was despite talks covering almost the entire future relationship between Britain and the bloc only being scheduled to begin following our departure.
Mr Johnson said: “One relevant post-election development was the government’s confirmation that the dedicated Department for Exiting the EU, and therefore the House of Commons Brexit select committee, will be abolished at the end of this month. In addition, media reports have stated Prime Minister Boris Johnson has banned officials from using the word ‘Brexit’, that Downing Street will not refer to a future ‘deal’ with the EU, and that number 10’s dedicated Brexit press team will be renamed, from February onwards.
“The government is also apparently planning to deny Parliament oversight of the talks ahead and a vote on extending the post-Brexit transition period, which it’s committed to ending on 31 December this year.”
Mr Johnson said these developments suggested the Prime Minister was trying to position the forthcoming negotiations as just another aspect of foreign and economic policy, of real interest only to specialists. However, in truth, they would be of massive importance, including to businesses, as they would cover Britain’s future trading arrangements with the EU.
He said: “One potential reason for the government’s apparent positioning that Brexit is all-but over is it wants to try and reduce scrutiny of the agreements the Prime Minister will make with the EU in the months ahead. This is because, whether he sticks to his guns or makes concessions, he’s likely to upset significant audiences at home.”
Mr Johnson said if, on the one hand, the Prime Minister was true to his word and agreed a distant future trading relationship with the EU, merely like the one the bloc had with Canada, British businesses would face increased costs and administrative burdens, plus probably lower sales.
He said: “Britain’s economy overall is likely to be damaged in these circumstances, because of factors such as the EU currently buying almost half our exports, whereas it purchases only about eight per cent of Canada’s. This consideration has acquired new significance since the general election, as among the areas likely to be hardest by such a Brexit are the former Labour constituencies in areas such as the English north and midlands that the government is understandably proud of having won.”
Alternatively, Mr Johnson said, the Prime Minister changing tack and agreeing a closer future trading relationship with the EU would be unpopular with the more extreme Brexiters, in his party and elsewhere.
He said: “Such concessions are likely to be needed, however, if any comprehensive agreement is to be reached with a more powerful partner within the existing transition period. This timescale implies a window for these demanding and detailed talks – officially aimed at producing agreements not just on trade but also financial services, fishing, Northern Ireland and data issues – only from March to around October.
“Many experts also believe these retreats will be necessary if the Conservatives are to fund their general election spending pledges, such as an extra £34bn a year for the NHS by the end of the Parliament and investing £29bn in strategic roads.”
Mr Johnson said another possible reason for the government suggesting Brexit would be largely over this month was a desire to maximise the interval, and thus the connection in the public mind, between perceived completion and any negative effects of its intended deal, such as corporate relocations and job losses, becoming apparent. He said the Prime Minister may also be trying to obscure the fact that leading members of the Leave campaign suggested before the 2016 referendum that a trade deal with the EU would be in place by the time the UK left it, a claim which has proved undeliverable.
He said despite these and any additional official signals, such as the reintroduction of blue passports and issuing of commemorative coins, British businesses should not believe the Brexit process was now virtually complete.
Mr Johnson said: “It’s not a happy portent the Prime Minister reportedly used a four-letter word to describe his view of business, in June 2018, when asked about its fears over a hard Brexit. Companies and their representative bodies should therefore maintain the pressure on him in the coming months to secure a deal which does the least possible damage to their interests and our economic prosperity, as there’s still much to play for.”