Richard North, 12/06/2020  

We're nearly halfway through June. From the perspective of the beginning of the year, before we were engulfed in Covid-19, this was to be the crucial month. It was when that all-important decision was to be made, as to whether the transition period was going to be extended, or whether we were going to risk a no-deal termination.

When we were struck by Covid-19, the obvious option seemed delay, extending the transition period while the nation dealt with the immediate crisis. It never seems to make sense to intensify one crisis by piling on another. And even if a longer transition period did end up with us paying more money to the EU, it would be a fraction of what the epidemic was costing us.

Yet, what we got from government initially was silence and then, from numerous sources, intimations that on no account was there to be any application for an extension.

Then – I'm not sure when, or precisely from whom – we started getting suggestions that leaving without a deal had become a more tenable option because we had already taken the financial hit, so there was little pain to be had from walking away.

As such, though, this was never formal government policy. We don't seem to have formal policies on EU-related issues these days – nothing like a White Paper, where different options and consequences are set out, with a national debate before any decisions are taken.

Instead, we seem to have policy by osmosis. One day we don't have a policy. The next, we do - but it is just there. No-one seems to know where it came from or when it arrived. And it is there for as long as it is there, until it isn't. Then it's not there, even if it's impossible to say when it disappeared.

Insofar as it is possible to say, though, the "no-extension" policy is firm. But you never know these days. We could go to the eleventh hour and, as we did with the Withdrawal Agreement, find Johnson dashing off somewhere to do the last-minute deal that he said he would never do.

We also have to take into account the EU. Nothing is ever final with that lot. So when the "colleagues" say that the 30 June is the final, final deadline, we need only accept it as final for as long as it takes them to devise an ingenious fudge which gets everybody off the hook.

Generally, anything can happen. They could stop the clock – that's been done before, so that the talks can continue while time stands still. Or, from the people who brought you a "non-paper", we could have a "non-extension", whereby the transition continues in force even though it has not been formally extended.

In that case, we would all maintain the status quo for as long as everybody agreed to pretend that it was there, without anyone admitting that it was. They could create a virtual UK, which still had membership of the EU, or we could have a real UK with a virtual membership.

The thing is with the Johnson administration, you never know. You can never be sure of anything until it has happened, and even after it's happened, it can unhappen. Add the uncertainty of the EU, and its inventiveness when it comes to fudge recipes, and we could end up with a happening of unknown dimensions which only happens when you don't look at it.

Even if something is agreed at the end of June, or appears to have been, that doesn't mean that it will necessarily hold until 31 December. By that time, the wheel could have been reinvented, and whatever we thought the deal might have meant will not be what it actually means in the cold December sunlight – assuming we have any.

Some people, though, take the view that Johnson does want a deal, so will keep talking after whatever deadline is imposed, and will keep going until we get a deal.

Others think that the prime minister will fail to get anything more than the most basic of deals – barely more than a no-deal - but he will parade it as a great victory and pretend that it was everything that he wanted. But we may not be told what it is and we will only find out later quite what a disaster it is.

There is another possibility, though. The cumulative incompetence of this government may give rise to a surge of Covid-19 cases during the late autumn, creating crisis conditions which drive out other considerations. In the throes of a newly-imposed lockdown, we may end up with a no-deal termination to the transition period but no-one will notice.

On the other hand, as we noted yesterday, the best-laid schemes of mice and men may come to naught, if the European Parliament decides to veto whatever minimal deal is agreed. Personally, I don't see that happening. But you just never know.

There is, of course, another possibility, one posited by the Financial Times. This has the government abandon any idea of being a normal nation, allowing most goods to enter the UK with minimal import checks, in order to speed up traffic flows.

Thus, when the government takes back control of our laws and borders at the end of this year, it turns out that it will apply no checks at our borders, so that we have very little control over what comes in. This is what is known technically as taking "a pragmatic and flexible approach". Others might have another name for it.

The only BAME person in the woodpile on this though is that, while the UK government is at liberty to waive checks on incoming goods, exports to EU Member States will be exposed to the full range of checks, and will require comprehensive paperwork before they are allowed entry.

What will most certainly happen then is that there will be considerable congestion in French and other Channel ports, which will delay traffic coming here. It will also extend the delivery timescale, which means fewer journeys per truck, putting greater strain on the already creaking transport infrastructure.

If the UK is accepting imports without checks, though – in the context where some of these goods will be used in exported goods, the EU many intensify checks on anything coming out of the UK, on the basis that risks are higher than normal.

The chances, therefore, that unilateral action at our ports will provide any relief lie in the realms of fantasy. As with so many things, this government doesn't seem to have thought it through. This will most likely reflect in other areas, where the Johnson and his ministers seem to have a very limited grasp of the issues.

This points to yet another and perhaps even more disturbing possibility. While we are carefully evaluating all the possibilities a reasonable government might consider, the reality might be that we are not dealing with a reasonable government.

Instead, we might be faced with a magical mystery tour in the grip of an administration that doesn't know what it is doing, and has failed to get to grips with the basics of post-Brexit trade.

Furthermore, it does not seem to have occurred to the government that, once we leave the EU and the Single Market, we cease to benefit from control systems which ensure basic product standards are kept. Without them, the UK could easily become the dumping ground for sub-standard goods, including unsafe food which gives rise to food poisoning or other ailments.

It can only be a matter of time before a consumer scare of one type of another has the media – and opposition MPs – demanding the imposition of rigorous import checks. One can even imagine legal action being taken to force the issue.

This also neglects the real risk of the UK being targeted by criminal gangs, using our market as the dumping ground for all manner of illegal goods, as well as people and drug trafficking. As we will be no longer linked into the EU's customs intelligence system, it will be very difficult to secure any level of safety without physical checks.

One can only hope, therefore, that the government is playing a vast practical joke on us and that, secretly, it really does have a spiffingly good plan ready to drop into place on 1 January. Somehow, though, I suspect we'll be back on the magic roundabout.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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