When Boris Johnson sold Brexit to the British electorate in 2016, his pledge was that it would be “frictionless”. Just how monumental this deceit was is now becoming apparent.
You cannot leave a single market across a frictionless border – and you never could. Today the minister for the cabinet office, Michael Gove, and home secretary, Priti Patel, were forced to spell out this reality. Gove proposes a staggering £705m on border infrastructure. He wants a giant holding pen in Kent – a Nightingale car park? – probably matched by others meeting WTO anti-smuggling standards in East Anglia and along the south coast. Since Johnson could not deny Northern Ireland continued membership of the EU single market, the same will apply to trade across the Irish Sea.
As yet, the haulage industry, livestock farming, fishing and complex manufacturing remain in the dark on details. Six months from full operation, the Kent holding pens are just fields of flowers. No one seems to know what “WTO terms” mean for pricing imports or exports. Firms just released from the uncertainty of the Covid-19 lockdown are to be plunged into another round of uncertainty. This is not competent government.
As with coronavirus, the overwhelming impression is of amateur ideologues playing games with other people’s lives, in thrall to Johnson’s sloganising aide Dominic Cummings. Many Britons used to have a blind faith that their governing class was a Rolls-Royce. It could muddle through any crisis. But Cummings has shattered that myth: he and Johnson have already devastated the reputation of British healthcare worldwide. This week they proffer the fatuous “Let’s get going” as an alternative to frictionless dealings with Britain’s neighbouring trading bloc.
There are no deals with the rest of the world to remotely compensate for withdrawing from the EU single market. The only two that might help, with the US and China, are beyond any plausible horizon. The non-trading penalties pile up by the day, obstructing cross-Channel travel with barriers to health insurance, licensing, phone charges and even pets. As for Patel’s proposal for short-term visas only to graduates and care workers: has Britain ever shown the world so cynical an unwelcome? The proclaimed benefit in all this is a mere abstraction – all a vague opportunity for the country.
At the time of the Brexit debate, “frictionless” was presented as a failsafe, a reassurance of pragmatic reality underpinning the sort of deal that would be made if Britain left the EU. The later proposal for a “hard” Brexit was a tactical ploy of Johnson’s in his leadership campaign against Jeremy Hunt. It is still conceivable that in coming weeks he will capitulate, as he did over Northern Ireland. If so, his present posturing is unforgivable treatment of those who, unlike him, do not live off the state and must pay a high price for his political antics and ever more uncertainty.
There is now only one colleague who must understand this and who has the political clout to confront Johnson. It is his chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Has he the guts to plead the cause of sanity before it is too late?
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist