Coronavirus pandemic will pass – but Brexit is for life

Weeks away from a cliff-edge 'no deal' but Covid crisis drowns out the cries from businesses.

Coronavirus pandemic will pass – but Brexit is for life Getty Images

Remember Brexit? It was the volcanic issue that consumed the now barely remembered pre-Covid world and settled the issue of the last UK general election.

The UK has now left the European Union.

Those with long memories will recall the parliamentary attempts to enact the withdrawal agreement. Chaos and confusion reigned, the government stumbled from crisis to crisis and recrimination was the order of the day.

It was generally agreed at the time that the withdrawal part was the ‘easy’ bit, forging a future trading relationship would be the difficult task.

Well, we are weeks from a cliff-edge ‘no deal’ scenario and yet there are no volcanic eruptions, no sense of parliamentary crisis and as for recrimination, well it’s struggling to be heard above the din on rows centred on the pandemic.

Sure, the lack of progress on trade talks has been reported and ministers and shadow ministers have been canvassed for their opinions. The magnitude of what is at stake, however, has been lost, another casualty of a news agenda dominated by one issue.

As the frustration of business grows ever louder and as some worry about what this might mean, the government continues to be a model of confusion.

They want a deal but stand ready to embrace no deal. Two days ago Number 10 indicated that the talks were over. Yesterday, Michael Gove said the door was “still ajar”.

Now, we have been here before.

For about 95% of the time, the noises were only pitched in howls of anguish about agreeing the terms of withdrawal. And then just, as the body politic steeled itself for no agreement, the Houdini’s of Whitehall and Berlaymont worked their magic.

The finger pointing of the last week could be playing to galleries making any agreement look like an act of supreme statesmanship when it arrives. We shall see. Nothing would surprise me. Not even the important issue of future trade is insulated from grandstanding and game playing.

A concomitant issue that has been even more under reported is the UK’s Internal Market Bill. It sets out the rules for the operation of the UK internal market after the end of the Brexit transition period in January.

Holyrood ministers say it’s a power grab. Not so, says the Prime Minister. On that issue they will never agree.

The legislation proposes the UK Government could over-ride commitments in the withdrawal agreement in relation to international trade, a move that would see it break the law. The EU has warned that the government would face legal action in such circumstances.

Today, however, a non- partisan voice entered the debate. The Archbishop of Canterbury joined the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in denouncing the bill.

In a letter to the Financial Times, also signed by the Archbishops of York, Wales and Armagh, they warn that it threatens the Good Friday Agreement, the foundation of peace in Northern Ireland for over two decades.

And on the proposal to break international law they say “this has enormous moral, as well as political and legal consequences. We believe this would create a disastrous precedent”.

Ministers continue to insist that the bill is but a mere safety net to protect the integrity of the UK internal market.

These issues are controversial and are being aired in parliament, but they are struggling to inform any meaningful public narrative, such is the saturation nature of the Covid issue.

And yet, the consequences are profound. No-one really knows what the exact and full consequences of a no deal trading agreement will be.

Business has lived with uncertainty since the referendum of 2016 and is now encumbered with the consequence of a pandemic. Added to that is the possibility of a cliff-edge scenario in weeks. Those who trade for a living must feel like they are juggling fine china in a vortex.

I cannot recall a single issue ever when the CBI and the TUC have marched as one in spelling out their concerns for jobs, investment and future growth.

Covid will pass eventually. If a vaccine is available in the first quarter of next year then by this time next year we will be some way along the road of living with the fallout. A failure to agree a trade deal will, however, linger long after the pandemic is a memory.

Covid has resulted in lost lives. The hope needs to be that whatever the long-term trading arrangements, they are not defined by lost livelihoods.