Richard North, 09/03/2021  
 


Responding to David Frost's extraordinary article of the weekend, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer has told a Brussels press conference that the Commission never sulks. "We don't have moods", he says. "We are an institution, so we try to work on a day-to-day basis with a very, very even temper".

Certainly, Frost's approach isn't attracting many new friends as Theresa May's former chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, comes of the woodwork to accuse the Johnson administration of "dishonesty" in its approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Barwell takes the view that Frost is "dishonest" in pretending that Brexit bureaucracy is not having a harmful impact on trade, as the deal which he negotiated does not keep "open and free trade" between the UK and EU - it introduces significant barriers to trade.

"Dismissing the difficulties he has caused for many businesses" adds insult to injury. He adds that Frost's argument that setting your own laws in every area of national life is "vital to economic success" will come as news to countries like Ireland that have grown strongly whilst members of the EU and music to the ears of the SNP.

"No-one is suggesting that bureaucracy prevents trade altogether, but introducing it clearly has a cost and it's dishonest to pretend otherwise. If you think other benefits outweigh those costs make that case, but don’t pretend trade with the EU is as free today as it was in 2020".

Barwell is joined by Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU between 2017 to 2019, demonstrating that Ivan Rogers is no longer alone amongst former mandarins openly expressing concerns about Brexit.

He accuses the Johnson administration of "burning" trust and goodwill with Brussels by "playing games around Brexit" for domestic political reasons. Expressing himself on BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour, he added: "It is deeply worrying and frankly deeply depressing that with the ink barely dry on the protocol and on the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, we're already running into these sorts of problems. Brexit, far from being done, is going to be with us for a long time to come".

Rycroft believes that problems in Northern Ireland have been caused in part by the government misleading local traders about the likely impact of Johnson's "oven-ready" deal.

"There are undoubtedly issues about the Protocol", he concedes, but much of the problem stems from traders being unprepared for the checks currently being implemented, "not least because the government spent the best part of last year saying to them they wouldn’t have to do anything, despite knowing full well that all of these checks would have to come in".

"Extending those grace periods", he adds, "is not an unreasonable thing to ask for, but the way that David Frost has gone about this, to tell the Commission he was unilaterally extending without doing his opposite number in the Commission the courtesy of picking up the phone, suggests that they're still playing games around Brexit".

"It's all about the politically attractive ploy of playing hardball with the EU, rather than accepting their responsibilities for the deal that he and the prime minister negotiated", Rycroft suggests. "This is a complicated deal, the Northern Ireland Protocol, it's the least worst option, it's there to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland".

His view remains that the Protocol is "so important to the peace process" that it must be able to work. That, he says, "is going to require a huge amount of goodwill and trust on both sides", at which point he added: "I'm afraid that trust is being burnt at the moment".

Johnson, however – as one might predict – is entirely unrepentant. Asked about the protocol at a Number10 press conference, he insisted that he still believed he had secured "a great deal".

"Insofar as there have been teething problems", he burbled, adding that "there's no question that there have been", he boasted that, "we're fixing those now with some temporary technical things that we're doing to smooth flow, which I think are very, very sensible".

Demonstrating once more that he and reality have become total strangers, he asserted that these teething problems "can all be ironed out, sorted out". Insofar as the EU objected to that, he said, "with goodwill and with imagination and that's what we intend to bring to it and I'm sure that our friends will as well".

Apart from the bizarre sentence structure – almost a trademark of this rambling fool – Johnson has engineered a deep political crisis and brought our exports to the brink of collapse, and he feels that the problems can be "sorted" with " goodwill" and "imagination".

The fatuity of this stance is most evident when the high-flown rhetoric is compared with the reality on the ground. Down in the weeds, we hear Lord Rogan, a senior Ulster Unionist peer calling for urgent action to address an increasingly serious shortage of vets carrying out official meat inspections in Northern Ireland.

Rogan was speaking after the Province's Chief Veterinary Officer told a Stormont committee that, when the supermarket grace period in the Northern Ireland Protocol finally expires, the number of argi-food certificates processed locally will be close to the figure handled by the EU as a whole.

This is Dr Robert Huey, who has advised the Northern Ireland Assembly's Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee that these duties were currently being carried out by just twelve vets. "That's not going to work", he says.

Rogan has been notified that the UK Government has contingency plans in place in the event that the current contract to deliver official veterinary controls in Northern Ireland is not delivered. But the peer says that the shortage of qualified vets to undertake certification responsibilities should have been dealt with long ago and certainly well before the end of the Brexit transition period.

"The UK Government and Food Standards Agency must get a grip on this situation and do so urgently", he says. "We need more vets and they must be fully-qualified, trainees will not do. It is yet another instance of the UK Government taking its eye off the ball on Northern Ireland in general and Brexit in particular".

This, of course, is not addressing the bigger picture of why vets should be used for meat inspection – the shortage reflecting the reluctance of trained vets to do this work. Furthermore, the shortage in NI is just the tip of the iceberg.

Returning to yesterday's story, where I referred to the staffing problems that Portsmouth Port Health Authority might experience, I came across this report.

This states that the Authority has only received short term (three month) government funding to support the establishment of the additional staff and systems necessary to operate the proposed Border Control Post.

Yet, the report says, getting the BCP up and running is "a major undertaking", stepping up staffing from 2.2 full time equivalents to the 36 required to ensure that the Post will be able to operate effectively.

The report. addressed to members of Portsmouth Council, says that the process of recruiting and training staff is underway, but "Members should be aware that there is a recognised national shortage of staff with the requisite skills as this function has not been required in volume for decades. Currently the service is supplying limited essential services from its existing establishment but this is clearly unsustainable".

Given that there are 30 BCPs to be fully staffed before full import controls can be implemented, we are possibly talking about a thousand or so additional qualified staff nationally, from a pool of staff which simply does not exist. And then there is an as-yet unspecified requirement for vets to deal with export health certificates.

It is problems such as these which are set to bring the system crashing down – issues about which Johnson is probably totally unaware as he burbles about "goodwill" and "imagination". "Idiot" is too kind a word for this man.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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