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They promised more than crash and burn

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Geraint Talfan Davies

In the aftermath of the European Council meeting on 15th October, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in briefing the press, said the following: “We are working with the 27 member states – the Council – with full transparency, telling everyone everything. And the explanation for this trust and transparency is the unity of the 27.”

Now try to imagine a similar statement being uttered by our own Prime Minister, in relation to the four nations of the UK. Impossible.

To be both honest and factually accurate, Mr Johnson would have had to say something on the lines of – “We have striven to keep the devolved governments in the dark, telling everyone as little as possible.  And the explanation for our own lack of transparency and trust is that we wish those devolved governments did not exist.”

The Johnson government’s scarcely concealed intolerance of governments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast – not to mention uppity elected mayors in England – is now plain for all to see, whether it is on Brexit or Covid or both intertwined.

It is evidenced by

  • the Prime Minister’s failure to respond to letters from our own First Minister, whether on Brexit or Covid,
  • by London’s wilful disregard of the formal mechanism of multi-government collaboration – the Joint Ministerial Committees
  • by the scorning of the capacities of devolved government as well as local government in England when establishing its centralised (and failing) systems of testing and tracing
  • and by the high-handedness of the devolution override provisions of the Internal Markets Bill which, true to form, were not shared with the devolved administrations before it was published.

These issues did not make it into Michel Gove’s list of concerns, as expressed in print and on television at the weekend. His often extravagant public professions of courtesy towards any adversary are, in this instance, but a mask for a stubborn resistance to any alternative view.

And yet, here we are, already some days past the government’s self-imposed deadline for a deal, still wondering whether we are going to get the skinniest of deals, like Canada, or no deal at all, like Australia.

He berates the EU’s negotiators for not offering the UK a deal to match the one it agreed with Canada. “What’s good enough for British Columbia is too good for the British people,” he wrote, ignoring the fact that British Columbia is 4,500 miles from Europe, whereas the UK is a mere 20 miles away.

The EU knows that proximity inevitably implies a greater competitive threat, especially from a government that has little time for ‘the level playing field’.

Mr Gove enthuses over the ability of British businesses “to take advantage of the new free trade deals Liz Truss has secured, including our new deal with Japan.” He does not mention that the EU has had a similar trade deal with Japan since 2018, that Japan accounts for only 2% of the UK’s total overseas trade – against the EU’s 49% – and that Liz Truss’s vaunted deal is calculated to contribute only an additional 0.07% to our GDP over the long term.

Casting around the most distant places on earth for comfort, Mr Gove also tells us that “leaving on Australian terms (his euphemism for ‘no deal’ at all) is an outcome for which we are increasingly well prepared.”

It is true that we have built lorry parks across thousands of acres of Kent, and this ‘world-beating’ country will shortly be lining the motorway to Dover with portable loos to accommodate the comfort needs of queuing lorry drivers, but on many other matters British industry is not at all comforted, as the CBI made clear at the weekend.

It is also true that, even as Boris Johnson attacks our First Minister for trying to protect Wales from a Covid overflow from the north west of England with cries of ‘no borders here, please’, his government is creating a ‘Kent access permit’ and planning to fine lorry drivers who don’t have one.  We will have our own KGB, Kent’s guarded border.

I promise you this is not a sketch from Spitting Image. But lest you think that these are merely the polemical outpourings of a calcified Remainer, let me refer you to the more sober prose of reports from the Institute for Government.

This is what it said last July: “Many businesses are poorly positioned for the end of transition, Coronavirus has starved firms of cash and left many struggling to stay afloat, derailed their Brexit preparations, preventing them from investing in new customs processes or stockpiling to protect themselves against the disruption to supply chains. Small businesses have been particularly badly affected.

A month later, in a lengthy report on trade and regulation after Brexit, it actually compared the exclusion of Britain’s devolved administrations with the inclusion of Canada’s provinces in the negotiations:

“The best way to avoid outbreaks of hostility between the UK government and the devolved administrations, to the extent that the wider politics of the situation make this possible, would be to involve them fully in decision making, especially (but not exclusively) on issues where responsibility for implementing the decisions made sits with them.

“The Canadian government effectively included its provincial governments in its negotiations on CETA where they touched on areas falling under provincial jurisdiction, such as public procurement. This allowed the Canadians to make credible commitments to the EU in those areas. The final agreement was deeper, more comprehensive, and more accepted across Canada.”

Clearly this had escaped the attention of Messrs Johnson and Gove. When the captains of industry are warning of the threats to the fabric of industry and the prelates of the Anglican church are warning of the threat to fabric of the country, what kind of conservatism does not listen?

Geraint Talfan Davies is the former Chair of Wales for Europe