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“Down the mine without a canary”

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe

There was a chorus of complaint over the last weekend at an apparent lack of clarity about the government’s position on our future relationship with Europe. Strange, given that 10 Downing Street made its most unequivocal statement to date: “It is not our policy to be in the customs union. It is not our policy to be in a customs union.”

We should be absolutely clear what those two categorical sentences mean: this government is no longer governing in the national interest.

In those 22 words, Her Majesty’s Government has set aside both principle and a mountain of evidence to maintain itself in office and to mollify a small group of Conservative MPs who do not command a majority in their own party let alone in the House of Commons or the country. It is to caricature the results of the referendum in order to conform with the wishes of a bullying clique.

It is saying, in effect, that its dominant objective is to hold its grievously split party together, regardless of its lack of any discernible alternative plan for the future of the country, regardless of the undeniably deleterious impact on the country’s economy and finances, regardless of its toll on the livelihoods of people and whole regions, and regardless of the declared views of the elected governments of Scotland and Wales and that of our closest neighbour, Ireland.

It means that the Welsh Government’s desire for “full and unfettered access” to the single market has been set aside, despite the fact that 61% of Welsh exports and more than 90% of our agricultural exports are to the EU. It ignores the ‘just-in-time’ requirements of British industries whose processes are intricately inter-woven with those of European partners. And it turns a deaf ear to the ticking clock that is counting us down to a destination still unknown and unfathomable. 

The best that any government representative has been able to offer is the prospect of an undefined “customs arrangement’, a concept that lacks all shape – other than that of a fag packet – and abjures coherence, simplicity and certainty in favour of uncertainty, fragmentation, complexity and cost.

One Conservative spokesman, in another triumph of hope over experience,  has said that in such a situation “it is not beyond the wit of man” to find some technological solution to the policing of our borders. Perhaps, but so far it appears to be beyond the wit of this government. The examples of NHS data and universal benefit are not exactly encouraging. We are left with the more realistic prospect of Kent and the Isle of Anglesey being clogged with lorries, that is until our trade with Europe has, inevitably, subsided.  

The consequences for Northern Ireland are even more serious and potentially tragic.  

In a statement of the obvious, yet one to which our own government appears deaf, Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator said on his London visit, “The only thing I can say, without a customs union and outside the single market, barriers to trade in goods and services are unavoidable”.

It is in this situation that Brexiters ask us to place our faith in their cloudy crystal ball, while at the same time criticising civil servants for at least making an attempt to quantify the risks, and in so doing honouring the Civil Service Code. This code requires them to “take decisions on the merits of the case” and to “provide information and advice on the basis of the evidence”.   

Let us be more precise. Conscientious officials, working for the government, can see no foreseeable Brexit scenario in which the economy, jobs and the public finances are better off.

Even within a single market and customs union, their assessment is that our economy would shrink by 2 percent, cutting jobs by 700,000 and giving the Chancellor £39 billion less in his kitty each year.

Outside the single market and customs union – but with a hoped-for comprehensive free trade agreement – the economy would shrink by 5 percent, reducing jobs by 1,750,000 and the public finances by £99 billion a year.

In the event of a no deal scenario – that Mrs May once thought was better than a bad deal – the economy would shrink by 8 percent, cutting jobs by no less than 2,800,000 and the public purse by £158 billion a year.

Play around with these assumptions as you will, it is impossible to conjure a plus on any front. No reputable economic agency or think tank has managed to do so. You would think that these figures would at least counsel caution. And yet the Government feels the need to listen to Mr Rees-Mogg and his band of brothers who would have us brush them aside, preferring to send us into an uncharted mine without a Davy lamp or a canary.

In what conceivable way can this course of action be judged to be in the interests of the country as a whole, let alone in the interests of Wales, and especially its poorer parts? More urgently, on what conceivable grounds can this be judged to be an acceptable proposition for Her Majesty’s Opposition? If this isn’t a moment when ‘clear red water’ divides the Labour party at Westminster beyond any doubt from the government, then what will bring that day about?

It is the Prime Minister who said that she wanted to govern ‘for the many and not the few’, and who professed to want to unite a divided country. She is now committing to a course that will hollow out her own words, not to mention the lives of countless thousands.

Mrs May, in the words of one of your predecessors, “No, No, No”.