Firms couldn’t plan as the government refused to confront the realities of leaving. Now we are out of timeby Christopher Grey / November 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
There has been a tone of increasing frustration and alarm in government statements about business preparedness for the end of the Brexit transition period. Cabinet minister Theodore Agnew recently accused firms of “burying their heads in the sand,” while the “Check, Change, Go” communication campaign has now adopted the panicky-sounding headline “time is running out.”
It’s certainly true that numerous surveys have shown a widespread lack of preparation. Overall, just 12.5 per cent of businesses feel ready for what is to come; in the food and drink sector, only 3.5 per cent say they are fully prepared. The problem is severe for larger businesses, but even worse for small- and medium-sized enterprises which have far fewer resources to devote to planning.
One big reason for the lack of preparedness is, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has demanded so much business attention as to leave little capacity for Brexit planning, although even before the virus struck it was clear that a one-year transition period would give inadequate time for firms to adjust.
But the roots of the problem go far deeper. One of the major achievements of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign was to discredit all warnings of damage and disruption as being “Project Fear,” put about by Remainers. It helped win the vote but has been a massive obstacle to delivering Brexit, for three reasons.
First, it inculcated the idea that there was going to be little or nothing to actually prepare for. In the words of the Vote Leave campaign, “there is a free-trade zone from Iceland to Turkey to the Russian border and we will be part of it.” If this made businesses complacent about what was to come, then the fault lies with Brexiteers in the campaign and, subsequently, in government.
Second, it meant that from the referendum onwards the government virtually refused to engage with businesses and their representative organisations if they raised practical concerns about how Brexit would actually work. Under both Theresa May and, even more, Boris Johnson, a bunker mentality took hold which divided the world between true believers and “Remoaners,” meaning those raising such concerns were simply dismissed as lacking in faith.
Third, and perhaps most dangerous of all, it meant that the government could not begin to communicate what Brexit would mean because to do…