Richard North, 30/10/2018  

As recently as April last, transport secretary Chris Grayling was staunchly denying that commercial airlines would be grounded after Brexit.

At that point, he was claiming that his fellow EU ministers "snort with derision at the idea", reinforcing a stance he had been maintaining consistently since the previous October when he had clashed with chancellor Philip Hammond over the issue.

Hammond had maintained it was "theoretically possible" that a failure to reach an agreement with the EU could halt air traffic between Britain and the 27 member states after Brexit, an assertion that had Grayling declaring that it was "inconceivable" that aircraft could be grounded.

Now, a year later – almost to the day – the transport secretary is finally admitting that flights "could be disrupted" after all. But in that event, he argues, it will be the fault of the EU for refusing to start talks on a new aviation deal.

This, the Guardian notes, represents "a marked change in tone" from previous statements, although Grayling is only grudgingly acknowledging that there may be problems. Speaking at the Airport Operators Association annual conference, he used Hammond's words, telling delegates that it was "theoretically possible" that EASA could refuse or delay the certification of UK-certified aircraft. But he thought it was "highly unlikely".

However, Grayling's laid-back approach is failing to impress airline industry members. Derek Provan, chief executive of the airports group that includes Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton, says: "'Unlikely' doesn't really help the planning process. There's a lot of time, energy and cost in contingency planning".

Low-cost airline Ryanair, whose CEO Michael O'Leary has always been up-front about Brexit risks, is warning investors that, "Depending on the outcome of negotiations between the UK and the EU, there remains a distinct possibility that there may be no flights, for an unknown period of time, between the UK and the EU from the end of March 2019".

This adds to the report a few days ago that Heathrow's operating company had raised £1.6 billion in loans to tide it over in the event that the airport was forced to shut down for a period as a result of Brexit.

This had, in fact, been picked up by the Financial Times in July, and recorded at the time by this blog. But only now, months later, has the general legacy media noticed the story, even though it was (and remains) a significant development.

As significant is the evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee by Lucy Chadwick, director general at the Department for Transport. Acknowledging that agreements on air services between Britain and the EU comprised "an area of growing concern to us", she then admitted that, "We have not been able to start those bilateral or multilateral discussions yet with either member states or with the Commission".

So, as it stands, we have a situation where, with exactly five months to go to Brexit, we at last have a grudging admission from the secretary of state that we have problems in the aviation field, together with an admission from a departmental civil servants that we've made no progress at all in trying to resolve them.

Since we are not even talking to the relevant parties, we have not even begun the process of drawing up a "bare bones" agreement, which would give us basic air services after Brexit. The scene is being set for a complete shut-down on Brexit day. 

For all that, making delayed admissions rather seems characteristic of this government's approach to Brexit, where it is consistently playing down the likelihood of their being any problems, consistently reciting the mantra that we expect a good deal, even where the evidence indicates otherwise.

We even have a situation where the official "technical notices" on preparations for a "no deal" Brexit barely concede issues about which the Commission's "Notices to Stakeholders" have been warning about for over a year – and this blog even longer.

Yet, despite the emerging detail, there still seems to be an air of unreality. Where there should be alarm verging on panic, we have Ed Anderson, chairman of the Airport Operators Association, muttering that: "We are concerned at the lack of progress in this aspect of the Brexit negotiations".

His "concern" though, only extends to wanting the swift production of a "framework agreement", and then only "to give passengers the confidence to book flights for next summer". Never mind that, within a few months, there is a very real possibility that the entire industry will collapse, with no prospect of a rapid recovery.

Given the nature of the threat and the significance of Grayling's admission, one might have thought that the media might have made more of the news, but the chancellor's announcement that a 50p coin is to be minted to commemorate Brexit is getting far more coverage. News values, clearly, are not what they were.

Needless to say, the talk of the day has been the budget speech, the first since 1962 which has not been delivered on a Wednesday. But it is also a theoretical budget. Ostensibly set to take effect next April, it can only stand if there is an orderly exit from the EU, an event which seems increasingly unlikely.

Should we crash out with a "no deal" Brexit, the speech will have been meaningless. The chancellor will almost certainly have to revisit his own budget. And with all the economic assumptions shot to pieces, he will also have to revisit austerity with a vengeance.

One might have a little more confidence if there were more encouraging (or any) noises coming out of Number 10, but the silence is deafening. Furthermore, in two days it will be November, when a last-ditch European Council meeting is supposed to happen. But it shows no signs of being arranged.

Thus, if the aviation scenario is any guide, it seems that about now is the time when we should be moving on from expressing mere "concern". Now seems a good time to considering entering into fully-fledged panic mode, with all circuits engaged.

Certainly, there has to come a time we should no longer be sitting back and letting events take their course. This is especially so as, it seems, MPs have at last discovered what we already knew - that they have no power to block a "no deal" Brexit.

Some of the darlings have been labouring under the illusion that they have a "legal veto" over this, only for them to be advised that, like the rest of us, they will only be spectators if we crash out. They may not even be offered a vote at all if the talks don't reach a conclusion. The "no deal" scenario takes over by default.

Nevertheless, there is little personally that any of us can do to stave off this undesirable outcome – apart from stocking up on essential items and investing in enhanced home security. Panic, therefore, seems the least we can do. We've worked hard for it, and to that much we're entitled. We deserve the right to indulge ourselves.

Whatever else, since the government seems determined to underplay the worst effects of the Brexit to come, we should not only assume the worst, but assume that the worst is far worse than anything which has so far been admitted.

Oddly, it is twenty years since Tony Blair came into office with the slogan that "things can only get better". They didn't, but it will probably be true to say of current events that things can only get worse. Now really is the time to panic - you know it makes sense.

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