Richard North, 07/02/2021  

The good news is that the Covid-19 figures are going the right way – across the board. Cases, hospital admissions and deaths are falling, while the vaccination numbers are steadily increasing.

The bad news – for Johnson, at least – is the closer we get to a post-Covid normal, the more media attention will focus on Brexit. And there is no vaccination or other magic bullet that will save the prime minister from his folly there.

I've already suggested that, for the moment, the unfocused wailings of business will do him no great political harm. The media concentration on "red tape" certainly is not harmful, especially when couched in the terms offered by The Sun.

This paper's latest headline is: "TRUCKIN' DISGRACE Covid checks, more red tape and petty EU cause hell for lorry drivers", retailing of how British hauliers have been hit by Covid rules and petty EU officials in the wake of Brexit".

"Dad of two" trucker Andy Couper tells us that "French customs in particular are causing us problems", observing that the officials "seem resentful towards British truckers over Brexit". They tell him and his fellow drivers: "We have all this extra work to do because of Brexit and we are not being paid any more". They need more staff and they are not happy about it.

On top of that, Couper complains: "They never seem in a hurry to get us through. It's becoming extremely frustrating", telling The Sun: "Sometimes it seems like they target British lorries".

Such rhetoric conveniently reinforces the "punishment beatings" line which Johnson coined in January 2017, in the wake of Mrs May's disastrous Lancaster House speech. Here we are, four years later and his underlying thinking has scarcely changed.

Slightly more damaging, perhaps is the Evening Standard headline – presumably a parting shot from George Osborne as he parts company with the paper and becomes prey to rhyming slang.

Anyhow, this paper will have it that, "As trade through the Channel Tunnel collapses border delays and tariffs mean Brexit is wreaking havoc on our businesses". The odd thing here, though, is that there has been acres of coverage about the delays encountered but I cannot recall much on the subject of tariffs.

But, avers Jonathan Prynn, the paper's consumer business editor, "It is now increasingly clear that the 'tariff free' trade that business was promised was a lie. From customs to higher transport charges, the costs of doing business with our biggest trade partner are only going one way. The wrong way".

Such is the obsession of our media with tariffs but, given that comment, one has seriously to wonder whether Prynn and his mates even know what they are.

Mind you, if it's real stupidity you are after, you need go no further than Mark English, a former head of media for the EU Commission in London, who asserts that the "EU single market removes tariffs". He and Prynn deserve each other.

While the minions prattle though, the Telegraph has its favourite son rise to the challenge of Brexit, with a concocted headline which reassures us that, "PM won't let EU push us around, says law chief".

You can see where this is going without reading the article, but those who are interested enough will find that Suella Braverman is convinced that Johnson "is right to override parts of the Brexit deal" and is backing the prime minister to get changes to it, "which means that the UK-EU border is in the Irish Sea".

Strictly, it means that the GB-Northern Ireland border is in the Irish Sea but you can't expect the Telegraph even to pay lip-service to accuracy these days, much less Braverman who believes that change would be good for Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

"Boris stood up to the EU last year", this stupid woman says, "and we got a good deal". She is "really confident" that we are "not going to let the EU push Northern Ireland around", and will "do whatever it takes" to get a good settlement.

Someone marginally less convinced that we are on to a winner is the Observer's Nick Cohen. He comments rather sourly – but not without good reason – that Irish unionists have been betrayed by the Tories, arguing that the Conservatives have always been happy to sell their allies down the river.

As regards the Unionist themselves, who did their level best to sabotage Mrs May's version of the withdrawal agreement – and thus bring into being Johnson's "wet" border – Cohen finds himself searching his bookshelves to find an example to compare with their bottomless stupidity.

Nevertheless, that noble effort hardly compares with the Observer's front page story, and easily the Brexit report of the week (shellfish aside).

Somewhat on the lurid side, the headline proclaims: "Fury at Gove as exports to EU slashed by 68% since Brexit". As always, the paper means the end of the transition period, but the meaning is clear enough, reinforced by a sub-heading which had hauliers complaining : "Cabinet Office minister ignored warnings, amid fears that worse is to come with introduction of import checks in July".

Picking up on that point, we have RHA's chief executive, Richard Burnett, having "repeatedly warned" Michael Gove and his officials of problems over several months, calling for measures to lessen difficulties. He had, however, "been largely ignored".

The haulier's representative is fronting an industry survey which is not only recording a 68 percent fall-off in exports carried by the Channel ferries, but is also claiming that about 65-75 percent of UK-bound vehicles are returning empty.

Truckers are unable to get back-loads either because there were no goods for them to return with, due to hold-ups on the UK side, or because some UK companies had either temporarily or permanently halted exports to the EU.

Expanding on his views about the government, Burnett finds it "deeply frustrating and annoying that ministers have chosen not to listen to the industry and experts". Contact with Gove had been limited and had achieved little over recent months, he says. "Michael Gove is the master of extracting information from you and giving nothing back".

Warming to his theme, Burnett adds: "Pretty much every time we have written over the last six months he has not responded in writing. He tends to get officials to start working on things. But the responses are a complete waste of time because they don't listen to what the issues were that we raised in the first place".

As a weary veteran of trade politics, working for the egg industry in the late 80s and early 90s over "Salmonella and eggs", I fought ministers and officials to a standstill, experiencing exactly the same indifference and lack of communication. Nothing changes.

If there is any surprise, it's that Burnett is surprised. This is the way government behaves – its default mode – and the only way you start getting action is when you stop being nicey-nicey.

Later, working for the meat industry, when I was down in Stafford to ambush a senior Defra official at a slaughterhouse meeting, one of my best moments was being told that, when he heard that I was on-site, he went "white with fear". It is not until you develop that sort of relationship with officials that you start to get their attention.

That Burnett is not getting through is evidenced by the response of a government spokesman to his survey. "We have had intensive engagement with the road haulage industry for many months and are still facilitating a daily call with representative groups", the drone says.

He adds: "We do not recognise the figure provided on exports. Thanks to the hard work of hauliers and traders to prepare for change, disruption at the border has so far been minimal and freight movements are now close to normal levels, despite the Covid-19 pandemic".

As his final insult, he says: "We will continue to work constructively with the RHA as we adjust to our new relationship with the EU and seize the opportunities of Brexit". Negotiation is a lost cause here. They need to start taking hostages.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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