One year on: in search of Brexit benefits

Lorry divers sit on the central reservation barrier, next to their vehicles which form a long queue into the distance
Lorry drivers sit and wait. Brexit has made queues longer and more frequent. Photo credit: “West.” by Romeo66 is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Few were surprised at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent appointment as Minister for Brexit Opportunities.  Rees-Mogg has always been passionately anti-EU and, as the founder of a company investing in emerging markets, has been very aware of his own personal Brexit Opportunities.  Less predictable was his immediate appeal to readers of The Sun newspaper for some ideas.  A look at the government website for this ministerial post could explain his plea.  The heading of Responsibilities is followed by a blank space.  Surely, after the years of bitter wrangling in Parliament, on the streets and around the nation’s dinner tables, there are some positive effects to show for Brexit? 

Jokes about bendy bananas and super-strength vacuum cleaners aside, the government has just announced a cost-effectiveness study of returning to Imperial weights and measures, which could be considered a benefit by those schooled before 1965, while the only discernible effect of Brexit on immigration so far has been acute shortages of staff for essential jobs, such as in the NHS and haulage industry, problems exacerbated by Covid-19. 

Misleading claims by Ministers

This February, Attorney General Suella Braverman, a long-time ally of Rees-Mogg, was still decrying “outdated EU laws… which (we) voted and lobbied against.”  Research by the London School of Economics found that, since 1999, the UK had voted against just two percent of proposed EU legislation.  The then Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed that we could not have produced the Oxford, AstraZeneca vaccine within the EU, when actually we could, and in fact did.  The UK’s own medicines regulatory authority, the MHRA, has confirmed that this is permitted for EU members, and the UK was at the time within the transition period and still subject to EU rules.

Negative effects on business and trade

Despite muted coverage in the mainstream media, there is plenty of negative reaction to the ongoing reality of Brexit.  A survey conducted by the Chamber of Commerce last October found that less than 12 per cent of respondents were positive about how things were going.  Only 59 out of 1,000 firms (i.e.only 6%) could articulate an advantage, one of which was simply that the deal had allowed some companies to continue trading much as before, which is hardly an advantage. 

More seriously, many small businesses, with minimal staff and lean margins to absorb the required extra time and costs of post-Brexit trade with the EU, have ceased to import or export altogether.

Things may worsen as we implement further import checks this year.  The cross-party Public Accounts Committee has said that four-hour queues at Dover could be normal on busy days.  BBC News calculated that the cost of a lorry of fresh fruit from Spain to Bristol is more than 50 per cent higher since Brexit.  Meanwhile home-grown fruit remains unpicked from lack of willing and able workers. 

Yorkshire Bylines runs the following regular features on Brexit downsides

So much for the bonfire of red tape.  The majority of trade with wider markets are rollover deals retaining terms from EU agreements, or adding negligible GDP that fails even to negate the cost of leaving the bloc.

The Office for Budget Responsibility agrees that Brexit leaves us worse off, with growth lagging well behind that of the EU or US, and UK-EU trade hit particularly hard.  Two industries that were held up as suffering under EU laws – agriculture and fisheries – have fared equally badly.  Westminster has been encircled by tractors and seafood lorries in protest at what they see as wholesale betrayal, with the government agreeing to accept cheap imports while failing to expedite perishable exports. 

Not that there is much that is cheap on UK supermarket shelves.  Sometimes, alarmingly, there isn’t much at all.  Some shortages have been due to the pandemic, but there has not been a severe effect on supply chains in our neighbouring nations, nor were there queues at the petrol pumps across the Channel last autumn. 

Damage to the UK – but not to the EU

The Institute for Government and the analytics charity Full Fact both state that the government has consistently overpromised and overstated Brexit benefits. Unsurprisingly then, a recent survey conducted by the National Centre for Social Research found growing dissatisfaction with the EU-UK trade deal among both Remain and Leave voters. And a poll carried out in January resulted in an ironic 52 per cent wanting to rejoin the EU.  This must have a particularly hollow ring for Northern Ireland, whose Democratic Unionist party had the NI Protocol forced upon it, bringing a divide with England it expressly rejected, and renewed civil unrest in its wake. 

There are some articles on how Brexit hasn’t caused damage… to the EU.  Positive pieces in the Express and the government’s own Benefits of Brexit report talk about benefits to come, but fail to elaborate what these are, or when they might arrive. 

Presumably, Sun readers get to decide how post-EU UK life will look.  The thrust of the much-touted Brexit Freedoms Bill is, after all, to simplify changing UK laws.  According to the Institute for Government, simplifying will generally mean less scrutiny, in a Parliament already criticised for its reliance on secondary legislation.

Quite the opposite of Parliament taking back control. The search for Brexit benefits continues.

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