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Prospect’s Port of Dover event considers a way forward for trade post-Brexit

For all the heat of the Brexit debate, and the many uncertainties of where we are headed, the panel and the hall virtually all agreed on one thing

By Prospect Team  

It was standing room only at a packed Prospect/Port of Dover fringe at this year’s Labour conference—a fringe that turned out to make waves.

The issue was trade, and how practically Britain can keep its crucial commerce afloat in the years ahead. Tom Clark opened up the meeting by highlighting how Brexit, and looming horror stories about miles of stuck lorries and portaloos lining the M2, had turned once-obscure details of trade policy and the mechanics of shipping into front page news.

In such circumstances, it was wonderful to have the chance to hear from England’s busiest port—who were perfectly placed to help us separate hyped-up horrors from real, practical dangers.

Tim Reardon from Port of Dover highlighted its huge importance for UK commerce. Seeing as this one port handles as much as 17 per cent of the UK’s trade in goods, any disruption to the 2.6 million lorries that use the port annually is a disruption to UK PLC.

A smooth transition with a good deal should be able to protect the great bulk of this: geography should see to that. No responsible government would want to jeopardise the trade that passes through Dover since it is so important to the nation’s trade as a whole.

The situation could potentially be different and much more difficult in the event of a No Deal Brexit, which was the chief focus of concern for Labour’s shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, in remarks which were later picked up by the BBC, the Independent, the Huffington Post and the Guardian.

Despite Labour’s official line being to demand a general election, Gardiner warned that it was unrealistic—“well into loony tunes territory”—to imagine the prime minister would easily grant one, even in the event of her Brexit deal getting voted down.

Having spoken to the Clerk of the House of Commons and staff, Gardiner believed that a rejection of the prime minister’s plan in the Commons would leave her with considerable latitude—she’d have to come back with the Commons with an update a few weeks down the line, but wouldn’t necessarily have to change course. She could do so, of course, but she could equally well decide that her best hope of survival would be to condemn Europe as intransigent, and simply allow the clock to run down until the point where the UK crashed out with “No Deal” and no transition. This really would represent a “catastrophe” for British trading, including at Dover.

Views on the panel—and in the hall—on the real likelihood of a “No Deal” varied considerably, and also on the extent of the chaos that could be produced. But everyone agreed that it could be disruptive and would be better avoided.

Some members of the audience asked questions suggesting that No Deal would risk disruption to vital supply lines, including food and medicine.

Adam Marshall, of the British Chamber of Commerce didn’t claim to know exactly how long such supplies could last—but accepted that, at quite a granular level, businesses now needed to be preparing for a different range of Brexit scenarios. Reardon talked about preparation at Dover itself. A lot of work is now underway in thinking through prosaic but important details might be handled in different scenarios. The whole panel agreed that in thinking through the potential impact on trade in general, and trade through Dover in particular, it was important not to forget the parallel preparatory steps that were—or weren’t—being taken at other ports, including Calais.

When it comes to keeping Britain trading in what could be—potentially—a more challenging environment, Marshall said there was too much emphasis on “trade deals” with other countries. He cautioned that the effect of deals with, for example, Donald Trump’s America would be likely to centre on the opening up of British markets to American businesses, at least as much as the reverse.

The effect on smaller British businesses would then be ambiguous at best. For many such companies that trade through Dover, it would be far better to concentrate less on grand “trade deals” and more on generous export promotion. Gardiner, and many others in the hall who asked questions, seemed to agree with that.

For all the heat of the Brexit debate, and the many uncertainties of where we are headed, the panel and the hall virtually all agreed on one thing. Britain is a nation that has, historically, traded its way to prosperity, and in future it can only maintain that prosperity if it continues to trade. Much of that trade always has—and very likely always will—come through Dover. A Brexit that doesn’t work for Britain’s pre-eminent port is unlikely to work for Britain’s trade, or indeed Britain’s future.

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