Richard North, 31/12/2020  

We're into joke territory once more, this one about a senior officer writing up the annual fitness report for one of his subordinates. He notes: "This officer is so stupid that even his brother officers have noticed!". But today we have a variation on that theme: "So stupid that even Laura Kuenssberg has noticed".

This emerges from an interview between Kuenssberg and Johnson, where the latter actually transcends the joke and demonstrates that he is far beyond mere stupidity. He is in a class of his own.

I did happen to watch part of the interview on the 6 o'clock BBC news and it really is as bad as the web report suggests. Johnson, it says, believes that the TCA allows the UK to have its cake and eat it.

This is the same man who, in his speech on Christmas Eve actually clamed, of the treaty that, "there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade". But, rather than allow this to fade away as an unchallenged misstatement, in this interview he reinforces the claim, cementing it in stone.

As Kuenssberg puts it, the prime minister refused to acknowledge that the treaty will mean new barriers to trade, willing only to concede that there would be "changes" for business when the UK drops out of the Single Market and customs union at the end of today.

He insisted that, with the no-tariff and no-quota agreement, the deal would allow the UK to "go our own way but also have free trade" with the EU. Although Kuenssberg suggested that "you couldn't have free trade with the EU unless you conformed with the EU's laws", Johnson indicated that the tariff/quota-free status "was having your cake and eating it".

Johnson was repeatedly pushed to admit that businesses and citizens will face new hurdles , but all he could allow was that: "There will be changes". He thus asserted that: "we've been very clear with people that they have to get ready for 1 January, things will work differently".

It was then that this crass little man demonstrated beyond peradventure that he knows nothing of modern trading systems, or how they work. "From the point of view of UK exporters", he burbles, they'll now have the advantage, that they'll only have one set of forms they have to fill out for export to around the whole world".

He adds: "And at the moment, people have to choose that are they going to think about the EU markets or are they thinking about a global market? Now it's a totally global approach. And I think it's a wonderful thing".

As I pointed out recently, after 31 December, when we leave the Single Market and customs union, the nature of the export process fundamentally changes. Instead of treating EU Member States as an extension of their domestic markets, exporters no longer have access to the market as of right.

Instead they must seek an importer, a legal entity established in one the EU Member states to take responsibility for the customs declarations and the other formalities, and for providing the necessary permits, certificates of conformity and other paperwork which will enable products to be released from customs.

Thus, while the exporter back in the UK has to provide all the necessary paperwork to the importer, to facilitate customs clearance, the responsibility for dealing with the customs – and most related matters – rests with the importer.

That there are any customs formalities is in itself the major barrier, and one which will tend to dissuade businesses in the EU from buying UK produce unless there is a very clear price or other advantage. This is a barrier to competitiveness which alone will impact on British traders.

But the idea, being put about by Johnson, that practice in dealing with the bureaucracy of the EU somehow equips traders to deal with systems right round the world – the "one set of forms" myth – is delusional. Even a superficial view of the US import system compared with EU requirements set out in the "blue guide" shows you how very different they are. The very idea that gearing up for one system is all that is needed to equip a trader for another system is preposterous.

Yet it is this same canard which Michael Gove raises, referred to in parliament yesterday during the debate on the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has, apparently, been praising red tape as a "benefit" because it will make British businesses get "match fit" to trade.

This then it what the nation is dealing with – another prime minister signing a voluminous treaty which, quite clearly, he hasn't read and, even if he did, he wouldn't understand it.

Thus, even in parliament, introducing the Bill, Johnson manages to bury the truth in a barrage of fluff. "In less than 48 hours we will leave the EU single market and the customs union as we promised", he says, then declaring: "British exporters will not face a sudden thicket of trade barriers, but rather, for the first time in the history of EU agreements, zero tariffs and zero quotas".

There we have it – the man is equating the absence of tariffs and quotas. So obvious is this that even Starmer was able to challenge his claim, stating:
He said that there would be no non-tariff barriers to trade. The Prime Minister knows that it is not true. Every Member of this House knows it is not true. I will give way to the Prime Minister to correct the record. Either stand up and say that what he said was true, or take this opportunity to correct the record. I give way.
This is the response from Johnson:
The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that this is a zero tariff, zero quota deal. He says that he would have negotiated a different and better deal. Perhaps he can tell us whether he would have remained within the customs union and within the single market. Perhaps he will also say a little bit about how he proposes to renegotiate the deal, build on it and take the UK back into the EU, because that remains his agenda.
He goes on:
Just as we have avoided trade barriers, so we have also ensured the UK’s full control of our laws and our regulations. There is a vital symmetry between those two achievements. The central purpose of the Bill is to accomplish something that the British people always knew in their hearts could be done, yet which we were continually told was impossible. We were told that we could not have our cake and eat it—do you remember how often we were told that, Mr Speaker?—namely, that we could trade and co-operate as we will with our European neighbours on the closest terms of friendship and good will, while retaining sovereign control of our laws and our national destiny.
Starmer complains that that his point hasn't been answered, stating:
The truth is this: there will be an avalanche of checks, bureaucracy and red tape for British businesses. Every business I have spoken to knows this; every business any Member has spoken to knows this. That is what they are talking about. It is there in black and white in the treaty.
The point is never answered and, in the remainder of the debate, there are only three more mentions of non-tariff barriers. The central feature of the treaty, therefore, in unleashing an avalanche of "red tape" on British exporters thus becomes an elephant in the room.

Johnson walked away into the unlit downlands, the beneficiary of a shallow, meaningless debate, offered by a pathetic group of individuals who are supposedly revelling in their restored "parliamentary sovereignty".

But there again, Gove reckons that the people of Britain voted for not just a new settlement with the EU, "but a new settlement within the UK, with freeports and FinTech, genetic sequencing and investment in General Dynamics, a fair deal for farming and fish stocks for coastal communities".

So there you go. My memory may be a little faulty here, as I do not recall these things on the ballot paper. But who am I to question my masters? Quite evidently, they know best. They have their lies to prove it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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