By Ian Dunt
We know so much about the Tory leadership candidates now. We know what Dominic Raab looks like with shorts on. We know that Rory Stewart enjoys going to Kew gardens. We know Michael Gove is bad at stacking dishwashers and Steve Baker likes sky-diving and Matt Hancock tried parkour. We know everyone’s kitchen as well as our own.
What we don’t know is what they would do in the event of no-deal. This would be a useful question to ask. After all, this is basically a no-deal leadership fight. Those are the terms of purity that Nigel Farage’s success in the European elections imposed on the Conservative party.
Esther McVey came pretty close to basically just saying she would pursue a no-deal strategy the other day. Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab want to first try and renegotiate with the EU, but pledge that we will leave, deal or no-deal, on October 31st regardless. Given the EU has been clear it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement - a point Michel Barnier reiterated last night - that translates to no-deal. And even candidates like Rory Stewart, who desperately want a deal, could at least tell us what their no-deal plans are just in case, given they won’t necessarily be more successful than Theresa May at getting the withdrawal agreement past the Commons.
We’re in a weird fantasy land of political commentary, in which the contest is fought over Brexit, but the subject itself is rarely mentioned. Each candidate insists they will deliver it and then get on to whatever they want to talk about - lowering taxes, more bobbies on the beat, One Nation Toryism, whatever. But of course it is all nonsense. Brexit will eat them up and swallow them whole, just as it did their predecessor. So it would be useful if journalists actually asked them what they intend to do about no-deal.
These are the kinds of questions we could be asking them.
When you say no-deal, do you mean no-deal ever, or just for a designated period of time? On November 1st would you be open to doing a deal? If not, how long is the no-deal period?
If you do eventually want a deal, what kind of deal is it? If it is a free trade deal, the EU have said that signing up to the withdrawal agreement is a precondition of negotiating it. Do you accept they have said this? How would you convince them otherwise? Previous prime ministers have proved much less effective at shifting the EU position than they claimed they would be. What techniques would you use to prevent that happening to you?
Why would Britain be in a better position for securing an advantageous trade deal with Europe after no-deal? Our tariffs with them are currently zero. After no-deal, they would reset to standard WTO levels, which are very high in agriculture and quite high in some parts of manufacturing. Why isn’t it easier to negotiate a deal that keeps things as they are, rather than to end the existing tariff arrangements and then try to reintroduce them?
What is your plan for the Irish border under no-deal? If you would keep it open, what are your plans for surveillance and enforcement? How can we keep UK consumers safe from black market goods or contaminated products? What plans do you have for reassuring our global partners that we maintain high regulatory standards during future trade talks, when our borders would be open to any good coming in from Europe?
What is your solution to the problem of traffic chaos in the days after no-deal? Traffic modelling experts from Imperial College London found that if the current average paperwork clearance of two minutes at Dover was increased to four, there would be a 20-mile tailback within 24 hours on the UK side, which would then balloon as the days wore on. An internal report for the Department of Transport by University College London found that additional customs checks of 70 seconds would lead to six-day tailbacks, while checks of 80 seconds would lead to a ‘no recovery’ situation in which the entire country was gridlocked. Do you accept this research? If not, which parts of it do you question?
What assistance would there be for businesses who suddenly require import and export customs declarations and a safety and security declaration for shipments to Europe? Many firms run around 300 lorries a week, with up to 8,000 shipments on each one, each of which require these documents. They are in despair over the administration impact they will feel over no-deal. How do you intend to help them? If you cannot help them, how do you intend to avoid the traffic chaos outlined in the Imperiel and UCL reports?
What are your plans for ensuring that non-stockpilable medicines can be brought into the UK? The radioactive isotope molybdenum-99, from which we get technetium-99m to screen for conditions like prostate cancer, has a half life of just 66 hours. Half life is exponential, so the best activity is at the start, and use after a certain point will simply give the patient the side-effect of radiation without any of the medicinal effects. Do you have an emergency plan for facilitating the entry of items like this into the country, which can also deal with the extremely tight regulatory demands of importing radioactive isotopes?
What would our tariffs be? Under the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation rules, you cannot discriminate in your tariffs outside of a free trade agreement. So if our tariffs for Europe stay at zero, we have to keep them at zero for the rest of the world. This would preserve our imports from Europe, but mean that domestic producers, especially in agriculture and manufacturing, would be flooded by cheap competitive products from around the world. In many cases they would struggle to survive. What are your plans to protect or, failing that, re-skill them? What are you plans for our exporters, who rely on the European market but would find extremely high tariffs suddenly imposed on their products?
What would our immigration system be? Would EU citizens in the UK have their status secured? What would you do to insist governments in Europe did the same for UK citizens on the continent? What would you do to ensure that pensions and health care provisions are maintained for them? What plans would you have for ensuring we have the appropriate number of European workers in the UK, especially in sensitive areas which rely on them, like the NHS or the meat industry?
These are the kinds of questions we need answers to. It is not enough for Tory candidates to treat no-deal as some sort of dramatisation of their Brexiter potency. They must be asked what the repercussions are of their policy and how they intend to address them. At the moment there is no real scrutiny whatsoever. It is a travelling circus of nonsense, where the clown occasionally pulls out a gun and points it around in a good-natured sort of way.