It has become the Voldemort of British politics, the word few in government or opposition will breathe out loud. Once repeated with numbing frequency, it is now the cause that dare not speak its name. I’m talking about Brexit – there, I said it – and when I say “cause”, I’m not describing it as a righteous mission: I mean Brexit as a central explanation for the multiple crises currently afflicting us.
Cast your mind back to the major shortage before the other two major shortages, the one that was making headlines before the lack of petrol to run our cars or the dearth of domestic gas to heat our homes: namely, the shortage of CO2, used for fizzy drinks, in meat production and to keep food fresh. Can you guess which part of the UK was blissfully unaffected by that problem? Open a can of pop if you said Northern Ireland, and treat yourself to another if you knew the reason why: because Northern Ireland remains part of the single market for goods, which means its bottling plants could get their carbon dioxide supplies from continental Europe. The rest of the UK had no such luck, with the government forced to pay an undisclosed but doubtless hefty chunk of our money to a US company to keep two CO2 plants open, because … Brexit.
It’s the common thread that runs through crisis after crisis. Of course, it’s not the sole explanation. Britain would have been more exposed than our continental neighbours to the gas shortage even if we’d stayed in the EU, thanks to a policy decision to hold much smaller reserves. You can put that one down to government incompetence rather than Brexit.
But too many of our other woes can be traced back to that fateful decision and the way it was handled. The empty supermarket shelves, like the pubs running low on beer, are the result of “supply chain issues”. In other words, a shortage of lorry drivers.
As it happens, there’s a dearth of HGV drivers across Europe, and Covid made things worse, slowing the training of new ones. But the problem is especially acute in the UK, where the combination of Brexit and Covid prompted plenty of EU-born drivers to go back home. It’s Brexit alone that has made it hard for UK firms to hire drivers from the continent and tough for EU drivers to operate in the UK. Where once a haulier from Łódź might do a trip that took in Leicester and Lyon, the British leg is now so tangled in red tape as to be not worth the bother. We should hardly be surprised. As Sam Lowe, trade sage at the Centre for European Reform, puts it drily: “We did make a big decision to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours.”
Or listen to Paul Kelly, a major and now struggling turkey supplier in Essex: “The reason we’re having all these issues is entirely because of Brexit and nothing else.” The issue in question is the shortage of labour: “The people who we used to have coming into the country to pluck and pack our turkeys: they’re no longer allowed in.”
It’s as simple as that. Yet few dare say it so baldly. Note the words of Becton, Dickinson, the NHS’s main supplier of blood collection tubes, when asked to explain the shortage of sample bottles that led GPs to be told to stop performing blood tests for most of this month. The company blamed “transportation challenges” and “UK border challenges”. Hmm, border challenges. I wonder what those might be.
It’s tempting for remainers to look at the forecourt queues or depleted supermarket shelves and say, “We told you so” – though if anything, “project fear” painted a rather less apocalyptic picture. Still, that tells only half the story. For one thing, as Lowe says, it was not “baked in” to the act of leaving the EU that, for example, we’d make it so much more difficult for hauliers to operate here. Instead, we are living with the consequences of the specific deal Boris Johnson chose to do with Europe. There were other options that would have kept us closer.
Even so, raising Brexit has to be about more than scoring points in an argument from 2016. Its value is in finding a way out of the immediate crises. Of course, the preferred, long-term solution is to train British drivers and pay them more. But right now, there clearly needs to be an effort to allow and encourage EU hauliers to work here. Until Friday, the government opposed that, out of the same ideological dogmatism that shaped its Brexit deal. The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, wrote to MPs last month, saying: “I do not support using foreign labour to tackle a longstanding issue in the haulage industry.” Sorry if you needed that blood test: the sacred dogma of Brexit comes first.
Now there are signs of a U-turn, with the prime minister reportedly willing to exempt EU drivers from the post-Brexit rules that have left us in this mess, even if that triggers a stampede from other sectors demanding a return to free movement for their industries. But Johnson should be forced to name the problem. Of the 14,000 words in Keir Starmer’s Road Ahead essay, only five are “Brexit”. It’s mentioned chiefly in the past tense. But this leaves Labour unable to punch the government on the bruise of these serial crises; it has tied its right arm behind its back. In the words of the Labour peer Andrew Adonis: “It’s unbelievable that an organisation called the opposition is not opposing on this because it doesn’t dare mention the word Brexit.”
The government is currently failing in one of its most fundamental duties: securing the supply of the basic necessities of life. And yet, extraordinarily, it remains ahead in the opinion polls. That won’t change until we have the courage to identify what is a central source of our troubles. In the end, Voldemort was defeated. But first he had to be named.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
- ‘Top Feature Photo: ‘Brexit is the common thread that runs through crisis after crisis’. Queues at a filling station in Pembrokeshire – Rebecca Naden/Reuters