Richard North, 19/02/2021  

There is no excuse for Starmer's behaviour. The leader of the main opposition party has delivered a major speech on his "vision" for Britain and, in nearly 3,000 words, has not mentioned Brexit – not once.

That is how it is going to be, it seems. Starmer's Labour is opting out of one of the most important debates of the century, leaving the ground to Johnson and his ersatz Tories. We're back to that strange pre-referendum political limbo where "Europe" is the elephant in the room which no one will discuss.

By this act of political cowardice, Starmer has abandoned any pretence that Labour is a credible opposition. And, without being able to challenge possibly the worst government in living memory, on its own turf, it can rule out any chance of winning the next general election.

Sadly, Starmer isn't the only one determined to drop Brexit into the memory hole. The collective media myopia continues apace, apart from the sporadic, disjointed reports which add nothing to generating a "bigger picture" overview of the state of the nation.

One of those appeared yesterday in the Guardian, an authored piece by Sarah McCartney, perfume-maker and owner of 4160 Tuesdays, the artisan fragrance company she set up in 2011.

Her business comes under the classification "cosmetics" and she complains that she "thought Brexit would be hard for small businesses like mine – but not this hard".

In mid-December, her firm stopped sending deliveries to EU countries because she wanted to ensure nothing was caught in the rush to beat any new trading rules. In some ways, she had been preparing for such issues ever since the Brexit referendum and had always feared there would be difficulties for small businesses.

A little more than a month into the new regime, McCartney writes. and it's clear that with every new hurdle, there are extra fees to pay. Whether it's importing raw materials or sending our products around the EU, additional forms need filling in and costs are nudged up.

Our perfumery, she says, is dealing with new customs rules and new VAT regulations, and losing access to the EU cosmetics market. At midnight on 31 December, all our perfume products automatically became illegal in the EU. I could make them legal again, she adds, but:
To do that, I would need a representative based in the EU – a legally appointed responsible person (RP) – but to set this up, companies offering the service are quoting up to £1,000 a year per product, and we've got 60 different items to sell. That's an additional £60,000 of annual expenditure we don’t have. We’ll find a way to make it all work eventually, but until we understand the VAT issues, there’s no point.
Interestingly – prophetically, even - I wrote about the cosmetic manufacturers' "responsible person" problem back in March 2017 after Paul Drechsler, president of the CBI, had warned that falling back on WTO rules would have a host of adverse effects on domestic and continental businesses.

In that event, he said, "small cosmetics firm in Stockport" with shops in France which sold its products would need an EU office, or it would be "illegal for those French shops to sell your products. A loss for you and for them".

However, only a few days before, Shanker Singham, then still under the cover of the Legatum Institute before moving to the IEA, had airily declared that, even if a zero-for-zero interim tariff deal could not be achieved, "British goods will not be stopped at the border – they will enter the EU on the same WTO terms which China, the United States, and Australia currently use".

This was the man of whom Michael "we've had enough of experts" Gove later said, "I can think of nobody more knowledgeable on trade issues than Shanker", who had also confidently asserted that, "While membership in the single market currently provides the UK with the opportunity to trade goods at a zero-tariff rate across the EU, free trade agreements provide the same benefits".

Back in March 2017, I took Drechsler's comments further and correctly forecast that, "the third country that the UK will become on Brexit will no longer be able freely to export cosmetics to the EU in the way that it is doing currently", setting out in respect of the cosmetics industry the specific problem of which McCartney is complaining.

But, with the help of shysters such as Singham, embraced by the likes of Steve Baker and his ERG pals, the Brexiteer Tory party had convinced itself that there would be no significant penalties accruing to the pursuit of a straightforward "no tariff" deal, and the many warnings of the impact of non-tariff barriers were ignored.

Now, despite chickens coming home to roost, the impact of non-tariff barriers are still scarcely being recognised, leading McCartney to warn that there are hundreds of tiny cosmetics businesses in Britain selling at local markets at home and on Etsy for orders further afield.

The soap and lip-balm makers she knows used to get their cosmetics safety assessed, then just put orders in the post whether their customers were in the UK, Ireland or the rest of the EU. To continue to do so now, they’d have to register for VAT and appoint an RP at great expense.

With local markets closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, effectively taking away access to online EU customers is a terrible blow, she says. Without this source of income, many businesses won’t be viable. She then concludes:
When Britain finally settled its trade deal with the EU at the end of December, it hardly seemed sensible to rush everything through while the world struggled with the pandemic. Even tax-return deadlines have been extended. What small businesses needed was to stay in the single market and customs union while we recover from the shock of lockdown. But we aren’t, and we’ve got to get on with it – however, we really needed time to absorb all the new rules we face to sell our products outside Britain. Our politicians wave this away as teething problems, or worth it for some amazing benefits which have yet to materialise. They're not listening to us.
But of course they are not listening. There are no telegenic queues outside the ports and the media lorry-watchers have gone home. Instead, the traffic jams are invisible as risk-averse businesses hold off despatching goods for fear of delays.

According to Scottish Engineering CEO Paul Sheerin, "all those who export goods are suffering" as a result of Brexit. "Problems are myriad, predominantly involving availability of logistics capacity and increased costs". But what is worrying exporters more is the impact on their relationships with customers.

One company, Sheerin said, had paid £1.75 million in dedicated air freight costs in an attempt to keep its supply chains moving and maintain its commitments to customers. "This same company previously sent home over 200 members of staff because it didn’t have enough components to build with; many are asking how long issues like this will be allowed to go on before clients abandon them for non-UK manufacturers", he added.

But as long as the problems cannot be captured on video, and explained by slme half-witted journalist, Whitehall can continue to claim that the UK has avoided the "worst case scenario", and claim that trade is back to normal.

Nor is there any need to fear that they will be called out. There is scarcely a politician who is not compromised in some way or another, while much of the media is similarly compromised by its support for the mad notions of "Snake Oil" Singham and his friends.

Those papers which do run stories, such as the Guardian, are mostly on the "remain" side of the argument, ready to leap into bed with the rejoiners. Their "whinge-fest" can be ignored.

Now with Starmer effectively taking Brexit off the Labour agenda, and Johnson apparently still pursuing his "fuck business" agenda, it seems that the front-line victims of Brexit – the thousands of businesses which have been adversely affected – no longer have any political champions. They are on their own.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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