The cause of our food and oil shortages is Brexit – but no one dares name it | Jonathan freedland
I‘has become the Voldemort of British politics, little word in government or in opposition will be heard loudly. Once repeated with numbing frequency, it is now the cause that no longer dares to pronounce its name. I am talking about Brexit – there, I said it – and when I say “cause”, I do not qualify it as a virtuous mission: I mean Brexit as a central explanation of the multiple crises which afflict us currently.
Remember the great shortage before the other two great shortages, the one that made the headlines before the lack of gasoline to run our cars or the shortage of domestic gas to heat our homes: namely, the shortage of CO2, used for carbonated drinks, in meat production and to keep food fresh. Can you guess which part of the UK has luckily not been affected by this problem? Open a can of soft drink if you said Northern Ireland, and treat yourself to another if you knew the reason: because Northern Ireland is still part of the single goods market, which means its factories in traffic jam could source carbon dioxide from continental Europe. The rest of the UK was not so lucky with the government being forced to pay an undisclosed but undoubtedly considerable share of our money to a US company to keep two COs.2 factories open, because… Brexit.
This is the common thread running through crisis after crisis. Of course, this is not the only explanation. Britain would have been more exposed than our mainland neighbors to gas shortages even if we had remained in the EU, thanks to a political decision to hold much smaller reserves. You can attribute this to government incompetence rather than Brexit.
But too many of our other woes can be attributed to this fateful decision and the way it was handled. Empty shelves in supermarkets, like pubs running out of beer, are the result of “supply chain problems”. In other words, a shortage of truck drivers.
As it turns out, there is a shortage of heavy truck drivers across Europe, and Covid has made matters worse, slowing the training of new ones. But the problem is particularly acute in the UK, where the combination of Brexit and Covid has prompted many EU-born drivers to return home. It was Brexit alone that made it difficult for UK companies to hire drivers from the continent and difficult for EU drivers to operate in the UK. Where once a transporter from Łódź could make a trip that took Leicester and Lyon, the British leg is now so tangled in bureaucracy that it is not worth it. We should hardly be surprised. As Sam Lowe, trade sage at the Center for European Reform, puts it bluntly: “We made a big decision to differentiate ourselves from our neighbors.
Or listen to Paul Kelly, a major and now struggling turkey supplier in Essex: “The reason we have all these problems is entirely because of Brexit and nothing else.” The problem in question is the labor shortage: “The people we used to bring into the country to pluck and pack our turkeys: they are no longer allowed in.
It’s that simple. Yet few dare to say it so bluntly. Note the words of Becton, Dickinson, the main NHS blood collection tube supplier, when asked to explain the shortage of sample vials that has led GPs to stop performing blood tests for most of this month. The company blamed the ‘transport challenges’ and the ‘UK border challenges’. Hmm, the border challenges. I wonder what it can be.
It’s tempting for others to stare at the queues in the forecourt or the exhausted supermarket shelves and say “We told you so” – although the “fear of the project” painted a rather less apocalyptic picture. Yet that only tells half the story. On the one hand, as Lowe says, leaving the EU was not ‘encrusted’ that, for example, we would make it so much harder for carriers to operate here. Instead, we are living with the consequences of the specific deal Boris Johnson has chosen to make with Europe. There were other options that would have brought us closer together.
Even so, raising Brexit must be more than scoring points in a 2016 argument. Its interest is in finding a way out of the immediate crises. Of course, the preferred long-term solution is to train UK drivers and pay them more. But right now there is clearly an effort to be made to allow and encourage EU carriers to work here. Until Friday, the government opposed that, the same ideological dogmatism that shaped his Brexit deal. Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps written to deputies last month, stating, “I am not in favor of using foreign labor to solve a long-standing problem in the transportation industry. Sorry if you needed that blood test: the sacred dogma of Brexit comes first.
There are now signs of a turnaround, with the Prime Minister apparently ready to exempt EU drivers from the post-Brexit rules that have left us in this mess, even if it sparks 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 is mentioned mainly in the past tense. But that leaves Labor unable to beat the government on the bruising of these serial crises; he tied his right arm behind his back. In the words of Labor peer Andrew Adonis: “It is incredible that an organization called the opposition does not oppose this because it does not dare to mention the word Brexit.
The government is currently failing in one of its most fundamental duties: ensuring the supply of basic necessities. And yet, extraordinarily, it remains at the top of the polls. This will not change until we have the courage to identify what is the central source of our problems. In the end, Voldemort was defeated. But first he had to be named.