Brexit: Is there a deal to be done amid the theatrics?

Business waits for answers as leaders make a final push to agree a Brexit deal.

Brexit: Is there a deal to be done amid the theatrics? Steven Lek [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Theatrics and politics are promiscuous bedfellows. Nowhere is this more evident than the up, down, up again and now current stalemate in talks aimed at securing a trade deal between the UK and the EU.

In this saga, the consequences of a hard Brexit in a matter of weeks plays second fiddle to choreography.

Leaders play to their respective constituencies. Briefings are given for the purposes of political spin which will be over-exaggerated or under-cooked depending on the motive of the party.

And all the while, businesses up and down the land listen to every utterance in the hope that they can plan for the coming year. The collective effort of the negotiators has done nothing to reassure, to calm the nerves already shredded by the complications of the pandemic.

The Michel Barnier-Lord Frost sessions should come with a health warning. These talks could be seriously bad for your business health.

Given what is at stake, the moving of deadlines and the briefings and counter briefings are the stuff of what brings politics and politicians into disrepute.

One of the sticking points is fishing, that economically insignificant industry which for reasons of patriotic pride is seen as the obvious example of the exercise of national sovereignty if the government can deny EU boats access to UK waters.

Fishing accounts for less than 0.1% of UK GDP. Of course, for communities who rely on it, it accounts for much more. It can provide 100% of household income in some parts of the country.

Would the government really not compromise on access for EU boats in order to drive home a point about ‘taking back control’?

Already the prospect of no trade deal haunts business, with the British Chambers of Commerce saying most of their questions go unanswered and there is only limited guidance forthcoming on the issue of moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Builders warn they are running short of materials because of gridlock at ports. Felixstowe is handling 30% more cargo as firms attempt to stockpile, worried that no deal will increase the cost of supplies, assuming, that is, they ever get them as new bureaucracy chokes the movement of goods.

And even the NHS is not immune from concerns with health boards in Scotland fearing severe disruption could lead to a shortage of medicine and equipment.

And what about those farmers who export lamb, worried that tariffs of 40% will kill their livelihoods when World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules kick in?

And on and on and on the concerns go, and with it the attendant worry of real people doing real jobs in the real economy.

If you could bottle and drink fear and anxiety and send it to the negotiators then they would quickly come to their senses.

The latest warnings come in tones that are doom laden. But we have been here before. Wasn’t the withdrawal agreement an impossibility? Wasn’t that process subject to precisely the same theatrics?

Who do you believe?

I’m personally inclined to take the verdict of the level-headed Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney. He says a deal is 98% done and he believes one will be agreed because it is in no one’s interest for a deal not to be concluded.

That is probably a cue for the Prime Minister to come riding on his white charger clutching the equivalent of Chamberlain’s ‘peace in our time’. 

The French will scoff that the British have appeased once more and buckled on fishing access.

Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission president, will counter Johnson’s bulldog rhetoric with a sharp wink to EU leaders and sotto voce tell them ‘read the detail, we have what we want’.

Such is the theatrics of politics.