Richard North, 15/02/2021  

For a long time now, we've been used to the uselessness of Andrew Marr, but on yesterday's programme, interviewing foreign secretary Dominic Raab, he really excelled himself when it came to discussing Brexit.

To introduce the subject, he focussed on a "real life actual situation" - somebody called Tony Bowker who runs a company in Sheffield which imports precision engineered goods from Japan and then exports them to the EU. Under "your Brexit deal", Marr said, "he says he has to pay duties because of rule of origins requirements".

Piling on the agony, Marr went on to say that many of Bowker's products now required export licences and every shipment to Europe had gone from costing him zero to costing hundreds of pounds. He had been advised that his best option now was to relocate the majority of his operations from Sheffield to the continent.

This brought Marr to his "killer" question, Bowker wanted to know from the foreign secretary whether the government was going to change the elements of the Brexit deal which made his business model unviable, whether he should he move out of the UK?

Now imagine that, before the programme, Raab had been given a truth serum and was only able to tell the unvarnished truth. To get there, though, we also have to assume that Raab actually knows what he's talking about but, since he's only a cabinet minister, that's a bit of a stretch.

Nevertheless, if we allow that these two conditions were satisfied, Raab would have told Marr that there was no chance of the government securing changes to the TCA in the area which affected Bowker.

His firm has been caught by the "insufficient production" rules – about which I wrote earlier. And since these rules were a direct take-out from CETA, which is precisely what Johnson asked for, that was a good as it was going to get.

The honest answer, therefore, could only be that Mr Bowker, if he was to continue operating as he had before the end of the transition period, his only option would be to set up an operation based in an EU member state. To service his European customers, it would have to import directly from Japan and distribute directly from its new base, cutting the UK out of the loop.

Sadly, no truth serum had been administered, so all we got from Raab was extruded verbal material. "We certainly want all businesses to stay here", the foreign secretary said, adding: "We want to manage the risks regarding exports that you describe. We've put a huge amount of money into supporting those businesses".

Had Marr been on the ball, he would have stopped Raab there and then. Instead, the foreign secretary was allowed to ramble on, saying:
The BBC itself was reporting that in terms of freight the flows of freight, both into the UK and out of the UK, are now back to 99 per cent of the pre-end of transitional period level. So that’s good news.

We talked last time I was on the show about some of the teething problems, and I think on the BBC's own reporting, based on the data, that’s been to a large extent resolved and we’ll continue to keep a very close eye on that. And of course there are all the wider export opportunities with the rest of the world with the new free trade deals we’re doing. But we have also been clear that there are changes that come with exiting the transition period and what we’re trying to do is support businesses as best we can to manage those.
To give him faint praise, Marr didn't allow himself to be side-tracked. "50 percent of the lorries that you're talking about were empty", he responded. Returning to Bowker, like many other businesses, Marr said, he "is actually facing an existential challenge. Stay in Sheffield or move to the continent. And unless things change he's going to have to move".

To strengthen his case, Marr then brough in Peter Cowgill, chairman of JD Sports, who had encountered similar problems in sourcing goods from the Far East and shipping them to stores in Europe. He too had formed the view that the business needed to relocate and find a distribution centre in Europe. "There are lots of businesses facing real practical, day to day problems right now. What are you going to do for them?", Marr asked.

That, of course, was a mistake. He had turned a very specific issue into a more general point, letting Raab off the hook and allowing him to waffle – which is exactly what he proceeded to do, with this following chunk of leaden prose:
We're already doing, as I said, a huge amount to support them with advice, with guidance, particularly into mediating things like customs declarations, and we've been clear all along that come the end of the transition period there would be changes, and we've put a significant amount of money into supporting those businesses. I think it's also fair to say, for the sake of balance and context, there have also been lots of other businesses investing in the UK because they see the certainty that a free trade deal provides, and/or because they think that the UK is a great source for business because of its own merits.
There was another dense slug of prose to come, but Marr had already lost it. By the time Raab had drivelled to a halt, he had told us that "we're in an excellent position now to grasp the opportunities of a global Britain out there, particularly investing in the areas of the IndoPacific region", as well as – would you believe it – "maintaining our key trading relations with Europe".

Running up the white flag, Marr chose to move away from individual businesses to the wider picture. Because of all sorts of new paperwork, he said, "there are now 20-page export health certificates for vets, there’s the 27-page catch certificate for exporting fish, there's duties for goods of all kinds which don't meet rules of origin requirements".

If that is going to make trading with business, with Europe harder and harder and harder, then the common sense conclusion, Marr tells Raab, is that people will do less of it.

Disregarding the additional EVM, and cutting to the crux of what Raab has to say, we now see the Johnsonian view of Brexit. We should, he says, "take a 10-year view as well as looking at the short term risk". The growth opportunities of the future are going to come from emerging and developing economies around the world, in particular the Indo-Pacific.

Having the freedom, the latitude to trade, bespoke Britain-friendly terms and conditions with those growth markets in the future, Raab burbles on, "is a huge opportunity, when it comes to jobs, when it comes to livelihoods, when it comes to start-up and to scale up".

As to all the problems businesses are having, Raab want us to look at them "in the round". They are merely "short-term challenges", no more than "bureaucratic obstacles that the EU is imposing". They are to be managed, reduce an mitigated, "as far as we can".

We simply need to "bank" the baseline of our European trade and look to the Indo-Pacific region for the "opportunities and the growth for the future for UK companies". That's where the growth markets and the growth economies are going to come from.

And there is the best explanation of why the government is not in the least moved by the problems businesses are experiencing with the EU. They are dismissed as "short-term challenges", with Johnson prepared to buy off the most strident victims, all in the expectation that the cavalry will come galloping over the hill in the form of trade deals from the Indo-Pacific.

But even if this optimistic (some might say unrealistic) picture materialises, Raab is talking of a ten-year timescale. And by then, if the scenario he hopes for turns out to be fantasy, the damage dome will probably be irrecoverable.

What this does say though – as if we needed any reminding – is that the government is embarking on a wild gamble, with not the first idea of whether it will succeed. And yesterday, presiding over it all was Andrew Marr, blissfully uncomprehending, lacking even the basic understanding of what he was being told.

Looking at the situation "in the round", as Raab would wish us to do, we are probably in more serious trouble than any of us could possibly have anticipated.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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