The “no-deal” Brexit debate has been a relentless saga of Project fear versus Project faith. Each side has amplified the uncertainty contained in the other’s position, denying the risks the other side sees.
For most of us, the idea that a no-deal Brexit could actually lead to aircraft not flying seems so outlandish as to be incredible. And if we won’t know the real consequence of No Deal until the day after we Leave, how can the UK parliament have a proper debate on whether it’s “worth it”?
But it is a judgement that needs to be made. Take just one area of the economy: road haulage. For the truckers who deliver so much of UK imports and exports, the scale of traffic jams on the way to ports are predicted be beyond anything the UK has previously managed.
Providing more portaloos than Glastonbury over an indefinite extended period to service the Brexit motorway lorry-parks will not be the most complex job facing Chris Grayling’s team at the Department of Transport. Yet the proponents of no-deal Brexit remain astonishingly relaxed in dismissing the logistical consequences of crashing out of the EU without a transition deal. It will, they insist, be “alright on the night” – and to suggest otherwise is “fearmongering”.
But not everyone in Britain need wait until after March 29 to taste the consequences of no-deal. Early in January thousands of truckers will find out that, for them, the consequences of no-deal Brexit are grimmer than simply spending more days stuck in a truckside portaloo queue.
Since November, every UK haulier who wants to transport goods to and from the EU has been filling in application forms for ECMT permits (issued under an international OECD framework to which both EU member countries and the UK all subscribe). A no-deal Brexit will invalidate UK-issued EU haulage licences, meaning UK hauliers won’t be able to continue to transport goods between the UK and EU. But possession of one of these ECMT permits, like a Willie Wonka “golden ticket”, will enable a UK haulier to transport goods to or from the EU even in the event of a no-deal Brexit. This will enable, in theory, some management of a no-deal scenario.
In January, British truckers will get a special letter. For a lucky few, the letter will contain an ECMT Permit “golden ticket”. But for most it will only tell them they have missed out on their application, for as Parliament was warned during the passage of the 2018 Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act, while there are more than 38,000 UK hauliers whose EU recognised licences cease to be recognised in the event of No Deal, there are barely more than a thousand ECMT “golden tickets” to go round. When in February 2018 Chris Grayling’s transport department set out its proposed solution to this in a Memorandum to Parliament - “random selection and first come, first served” - it prompted one veteran parliamentarian to observe: “I am old enough to remember Winston Churchill talking about setting the people free and abolishing rationing back in the 1950s, yet here we are, as an act of desperation, considering legislation that brings back rationing of permits for British trucks.”
In 2017 the Road Haulage Association told government: “The worst possible [Brexit] outcome would be any system which includes quota limitations on the number of international road haulage journeys undertaken.” It turns out that this is exactly what Chris Grayling’s plan for a no-deal Brexit will entail: the “worst possible outcome”.
For the thousands of UK truckers who will find out in January that after March 29 their livelihoods are set to join the late, great British haulage marques of Albion, Foden and Scammell on the scrapheap of history the consequences will be stark. During the fuel protests of the year 2000, the fury of UK truckers came closer than anything else to toppling the Blair government. Parliamentary enthusiasts for no-deal should take heed.