First Covid, Now Brexit - Are Ministers Shifting Blame Again?

Labour highlights concerns that businesses are being "fitted up" for potential January Brexit chaos.

The mood of the Brexit negotiations appears to be improving, with chatter about a path to a deal growing in Westminster.

For what it’s worth, a well-placed source tells me that James Forsyth’s excellent Times column declaring a Brexit trade deal “within touching distance” was a “bit too positive” and that the “difficult stuff is still difficult” - namely state aid and fish.

But Forsyth is extremely well connected and things do appear to be shifting, with “some progress” being made and better “atmospherics” around the talks, according to my source.

As we revealed earlier this week, the EU has also backed away from its hardline stance on granting the UK the automatic right to export food into the continent.

And I am told the UK will be willing to drop its law-breaking clauses from the controversial Internal Market Bill if a deal can be reached on Northern Ireland between Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic on the so-called joint committee, which meets again on Monday.

That said, a breakthrough is not imminent, and there are still huge changes to come for Covid-hit businesses and the economy from January, highlighted this week by the revelation that Gove plans to draw a de factor border around Kent for lorries.

As well as warning of the potential for queues of 7,000 lorries in the county under a “reasonable worst case scenario” no deal situation, Gove also revealed that a government survey suggests just a quarter of companies are ready for changes.

“The industry says that it is being ‘fitted up’ to take the blame”

It sparked concerns among Labour MPs that businesses, like the public on coronavirus, are being set up to get the blame if things go belly up when the transition period finishes on December 31.

Firms argue that they cannot possibly be ready when the government is behind on so many fronts.

They point out that key IT systems like the smart freight service that will oversee the so-called “Kent access permit” are not ready, that physical infrastructure is not in place, that customs officials have not been hired, and that there is uncertainty over the rules given the unresolved statuses of Northern Ireland and the trade deal.

Businesses struggling with the impact of Covid-19 might also reasonably have expected an extension to the transition period, even if only for a few months.

“The industry says that it is being ‘fitted up’ to take the blame for the government’s failure to grasp, in the words of one logistics expert involved in the talks, ‘real-world complexities’, as Commons Brexit committee chair Hilary Benn said earlier this week.

A Whitehall official described the claims as “total rubbish” and point out that everyone has a responsibility to prepare for Brexit, while recognising the government has “more to do”.

They also highlight the fact that the government has delayed import controls by six months and that it is the EU proposing to impose checks from January 1.

And in any case whether there is a deal or not, they insist many business preparations are “no regrets” actions that would apply in either scenario.

But given Boris Johnson’s refusal to acknowledge failings in test and trace, and the government’s willingness to blame the public for the surge in coronavirus infections while failing to acknowledge the potential impact of Eat Out To Help Out or telling people to go back to work, it is difficult to avoid a sense of blame shifting.

And there is the chance that firms could already be in the public’s bad books with furlough ending and bosses being forced to choose between keeping staff on part-time or making them redundant under chancellor Rishi Sunak’s furlough replacement plan.

Anand Menon, director of the UK In A Changing Europe think-tank (which published an excellent report on no deal this week), thinks such an approach might even work.

He told me earlier: “When it comes to the politics of this, what I think would be really damaging for the government is if loads of businesses said ‘they are talking rubbish, they weren’t ready, they didn’t have the systems in place, all this stuff about giving us notice is rubbish because we didn’t know what we were preparing for and they could have delayed it but they chose not to’.

“ButI think we’re not not going to get many business leaders doing that and it’s partly down to the fact that business leaders are also engaged in begging the government to help them out.”

The question for those Labour MPs like Benn and Keir Starmer is whether they can make the charge of incompetence stick to this government.


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