Five hour, Covid-spreading queues at passport control, empty supermarket shelves, mountainous red tape when trading with Europe, big increases in business and personal taxes, including – unforgivably – 50 per cent marginal rates of taxation among some of the relatively young when taking account of student loan repayments, another sticking plaster solution to rising health and social care costs, more highly paid bureaucrats to “manage” the extra spending, apparent impotence in the face of a renewed onslaught of illegal migration – welcome to “Global Britain”.
This always was something of a wooly concept, but the last 18 months of chaotic policy on the hoof is very much not what was expected of Brexit, with its “take back control” messaging. Freedom from the dead hand of Brussels was the promise; instead we seem to have left the EU not for the purpose of materially diverging, but only to become steadily more like them. Other than its distaste for the EU, Boris Johnson’s Government appears virtually indistinguishable from the social democratic mindset that dominates much of the Continent. Even its response to Covid almost exactly mirrors that of the EU as a whole.
The success or otherwise of Brexit always depended vitally on what was done with its freedoms. Lower taxes and nimbler regulation were part of that calculation, at least when it came to the economic opportunities of Brexit. But other than a little tokenism on data and financial regulation, we have so far had the opposite – a rising tax burden and a deluge of red tape.
One business leader who was a supporter of the Leave campaign tells me that he is positively embarrassed by the mess the politicians have made of Brexit, with Britain’s reclaimed sovereignty put to increasingly poor and incompetent effect.
As is now abundantly clear, the trade and future relationship agreement struck with the EU was a terrible deal for Britain that imposes multiple different obstructions on trade and has seriously damaged the integrity of the union with Northern Ireland.
Also clear is that David Frost, the minister charged with steering relations with the EU, is the wrong man for the job. Whatever his other merits, a confrontational style has made it all but impossible to reach the accommodation that would allow things to operate relatively normally again, as they do with other countries where Britain enjoys free trade arrangements. The job should be that of de-escalating disputes, rebuilding trust, and smoothing things over; instead, Frost has a knack for further inflaming them, thereby encouraging the EU’s infuriating habit of unduly legalistic interpretation of rules and treaties. Border deals could easily be done, but ideology stands in the way.
I don’t doubt that to some extent this is deliberate on the UK’s part. Politically, it is easier to create an intransigent bogeyman that can be blamed for disappointments than indulge in the compromises needed for mutually advantageous resolution. But with many small and medium sized enterprises giving up in despair on trade with Europe, it is scarcely an approach that is conducive to a well functioning economy.
As for the Government’s new immigration policy, that’s plainly not working either. There is possibly little that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, can do without the cooperation of the French about the now daily flotilla of dinghies crossing the Channel; the latest plan – pushing back the boats into French waters – looks wholly unworkable, and to the EU’s way of thinking further confirms the caricature of Britain as a pirate nation.
Yet there are matters on which she can act, but seemingly fails to – appalling queues at passport control among them. What sort of a message does the Government think these waiting times send to the outside world? Not a country which is “open for business”, that’s for sure.
The “pingdemic” is meant to be over, so can no longer be used as an excuse for the lack of staff at key points of entry, or the inability to cope of the ruinously expensive infrastructure of e-gates. Why hasn’t checking of the paperwork now needed to get back into our own country been more comprehensively digitalised to allow for smoother passage?
The waiting times may be a temporary, Covid related problem, but they don’t bode well for the future of travel in and out of Britain. Small wonder that travellers from red list countries are still required to quarantine; being forced like cattle into Heathrow superspreader passport halls increases your chances of infection.
There are lots of potential gains to be derived from Brexit, but the Government seems intent only on squandering its new-found sovereignty with an ill thought through, often incompetently implemented, Labour-lite policy agenda.
The Prime Minister is right; a global pandemic was in no-one’s manifesto. Responding to it has absorbed virtually all the Government’s bandwidth. Yet there is an unnerving feeling of drift about the way things are going. If ministers ever had any idea what they intended to do with Brexit, they seem wholly to have forgotten it.