Richard North, 01/01/2019  

Picking a suitable picture for this annual post is always a problem but this one was an easy choice. Since cross-Channel ferries are in the news at the moment, and are likely to remain so in the coming year, it seemed appropriate to show this one, the P&O's Pride of Kent snapped entering Calais Port last year when Pete and I were returning from Normandy.

But for Brexit, this would just be a picture of a ferry, but the tutored eye sees more detail which then conveys more intelligence – detail which would have meant relatively little even this time last year.

The key detail of note on this ship is that it is capable of front and rear loading. This allows vehicles to enter through the stern in Dover which can then sail directly to Calais where it can nose into a berth and discharge its load without having to turn round.

The ferry then loads through the bow, turns and returns to Dover where it backs into a berth where, this time, the vehicles discharge through the stern. It has to turn to achieve this manoeuvre but the crucial thing is that the vehicles don't. They've driven straight on and they drive straight off – the most speedy and efficient way of loading and unloading, saving vital time on this short sea route.

And there is the crucial difference between the Dover-Calais ferries and the ship we saw that has been potentially earmarked by Seaborne Freight for operating out on the Ramsgate-Ostend route. The ship was a stern loader only, with an integral ramp. As this video and this shows, loading and unloading requires much time-consuming vehicle manoeuvring to get the most out of the space, slowing down the whole process.

At Ramsgate, there is one berth capable of handling such ships and, with the narrow approach channel, it is doubtful whether the port could handle more than a dozen sailings a day. Its contribution to any Brexit overload at Dover would be marginal at best. In fact, with longer transit and processing time, more truck capacity would be needed to deliver the same loads.

Fortunately for us, there are people who think about such things, which is why the systems on which we rely actually work. But, apparently without realising what they are doing, our politicians are poised to interrupt those systems in ways that they don't understand, with effects that no-one can fully predict.

There are those, of course, who believe that any adverse effects from the disruption that we are on the brink of experiencing will be limited and short-lived. But beyond blind hope, there is no good evidence to support what amounts to a belief system.

Thus, in this brave new world that we confront in this New Year of 2019, we face the unknown at a level that we would not normally expect to encounter in anything short of a declaration of war.

Nevertheless, it is tempting to dismiss any fears as the product of an over-wrought imagination and go along with those who would play down any peril that we might face. We could simply go with the flow, trusting Micawber-like that something will turn up.

And, despite all our fears, that may yet happen. An eleventh-hour approval of Mrs May's deal, launching the withdrawal agreement and triggering the transitional period which will last for an as yet indeterminate time – assuming there is an extension.

Either way, this makes for a sombre and uncertain start to the year. There is no good cause for joy. We hold our breath as unwilling observers in a great drama over which we have no control and can scarcely, if at all, influence. We are in the hands of people in whom we have no trust or confidence, and of whom we have no expectations.

Basically, that puts us in much the same place we were last year, when I wrote that our hardest task would be trying to predict the unpredictable. If the actors were behaving rationally, I observed, one might be able to work out what was happening as the narrative unfolded.

At that time, of course, we were awaiting the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. We could not have guessed where they would go and, now we are there, we'd rather be somewhere else. And that neatly delivers us into the path of that cliché to which we increasingly resort: we are where we are.

And last year, I saw the theme for the year becoming one of watching our government making an unspeakable mess of Brexit with a sense of wonderment and despair, this year it is the turn of parliament to make its mess – and once again our task to watch it happen.

Nevertheless, I suppose we should take some comfort from Mrs May's perseverance who is still on the case, telling us that the UK can "turn a corner" if the MPs vote for her deal.

That might make a better theme for the year. Imbued with a sense of overpowering weariness, we could all use something to give us some hope. And if in her New Year message she is saying that 2019 would mark a new chapter for the country outside the EU, we could hardly disagree with her.

But that new chapter could be anything from a fairy tale to a never-ending horror story. It is too much to hope for a fairy tale where we all live happily ever after – even if there are "ferries" at the bottom of the garden. But we could have a situation where Armageddon is deferred and we live to fight another day.

With that, the best that we can possibly hope for, it simply remains for me to wish all my readers and supporters a Happy New Year, and hope we are allowed to salvage something out of a situation that not a single one of us could say was optimal.

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