03/09/2020 06:00 BST | Updated 03/09/2020 11:02 BST

The Clock Is Ticking On Brexit. So Where's That Oven-Ready Deal?

It’s been four years and three prime ministers since the EU referendum, and the Conservatives are still, incredibly, not yet ready, writes Rachel Reeves MP.

It’s now September and the month for the Conservative government to finally get serious about securing a trade deal with the European Union.

In June, Boris Johnson claimed there was no reason a deal couldn’t be agreed by the end of July. Yet, despite the prime minister calling for “a tiger in the tank”, negotiators report tortoise-like progress. 

At the general election last year, Johnson repeatedly told the country he possessed an “oven-ready deal” – but increasingly it looks like the government has forgotten to turn the oven on.

The government’s approach to EU negotiations and preparations has been infected with incompetence and carelessness, similar to what we have seen in other areas of government.

Important questions outnumber answers, and slogans have replaced solutions. After a summer of shambles, here are just some of the core questions the government must answer. 

First – where are we on the most important trade deal to the UK? Four years ago, Michael Gove assured the country that outside the European Union “we would be part of a free trade zone that extends from Iceland to the Russian border”. 

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street in London

Yet, with 121 days to go, a deal with the EU has still not yet been agreed. The government has asked British businesses to “get ready”, but they still don’t know the tariffs or trade barriers they need to get ready for. It is a total farce.

Second, what about our post-Brexit infrastructure? Much of the border requirements for the government’s Brexit plans are not yet in place or ready for when the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union at 11pm on December 31, 2020.

Deal or no deal, Dover, Hull and other port cities and towns will require additional and necessary measures, potentially including new lorry parks to prevent transport bottlenecks and wider transport disruption.

In July, I visited one site in Ashford to see progress for myself. Construction had only just started and worryingly, these last-minute excavations have just hit a literal Saxon wall in recent days.

Other facilities have not yet been built or even located and the details of these remain unclear. The technology to manage Boris Johnson’s border down the Irish Sea only went out to tender last month and remains untested. The Tory government should have been preparing for this years ago.

Third, there’s the implications for the country of leaving without a deal. Those in government who insist that the prospect of the UK leaving without a trade deal is a vital negotiating strategy must be furious that the current implications could be so grave for our country.

Ten days ago, a leaked presentation from Gove’s own department showed “a reasonable worse-case scenario” of failing to strike a deal in time included the possibility of shortages of medicines, food and fuel, animal disease spreading, councils going bust and our social care sector plunged into chaos, shortages of electricity and the chemicals needed to purify drinking water, and air drops of food required for the Channel Islands.

It would be a spectacular failure for the entire Conservative government if they do not deliver the oven-ready deal with the EU they promised the British people.

That’s not a show of strength but a sign of incompetence and chaos. These warnings come directly from the department led by someone who said a Brexit deal would be easy.

It’s been four years and three prime ministers since the EU referendum, and the Conservatives are still, incredibly, not yet ready. The Cabinet appears in disarray with Liz Truss writing to Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove before the summer voicing her concerns.

We’ve heard precious little from the chancellor of the exchequer whose financial plans would be sent into a tailspin if the UK was reduced to trading with our neighbours on WTO terms with a currency worth less.

It would be the worst possible signal to investors and increase many everyday costs for people in our country, yet Sunak remains publicly silent. 

Meanwhile businesses are left to make sense of it all. In recent months, Labour’s team of shadow ministers has regularly spoken with firms spanning many different sectors, including those employing many skilled and unionised jobs.

As a result of Covid-19 so many of them tell us they simply don’t have the same level of capacity to prepare for an exit without a negotiated deal compared to in 2019. Employers and trade unions tell us the priority must be securing a trade deal with the EU with zero tariffs and zero quotas.

This impact on business will ripple through to workers. People have gone through so much in 2020 and the government’s job should be to reduce the stress, not add to it. Last summer, Boris Johnson said “f*** business” when it came to Brexit negotiations.

His cabinet ministers have been equally rude about the country’s workforce with the current foreign secretary, home secretary and international trade secretary all having co-authored the notorious “Britannia Unchained” book, wrongly claiming British workers are “among the worst idlers in the world”.

We need a deal which reflects our country’s desire for high standards in employment, consumer, environmental and animal welfare rights in our future outside of the EU.

On top of all of these gaps – trade, infrastructure, preparedness, business and jobs – there’s a threat to stability without a negotiated deal. If the Conservatives failed to agree a deal with the EU it would also put the important Northern Ireland Protocol under pressure and show further contempt towards Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

Make UK has shown that manufacturing jobs in England’s most hard-pressed and held back regions could be badly hit from crashing out with no negotiated deal, badly damaging spending power and livelihoods in towns and local economies. Now more than ever, the UK must secure a trade deal and pull together as we fight the health and economic challenges of Covid-19.

It would be a spectacular failure for the entire Conservative government if they do not deliver the oven-ready deal with the EU they promised the British people.

Leaving without a negotiated deal wouldn’t end matters, but painfully postpone the most important trade deal the UK Government will sign. People should not have to pay the price for such political incompetence. Labour and the vast majority of people in our country want and expect the Government to deliver the deal that was promised. This is the month to make it happen.

Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster