Brexit could mean a dangerous backlog for business, transportation

The prospect of a Brexit-induced queue of 7,000 lorries at Dover, each one requiring a permit to enter the county of Kent, would once have been dismissed by leave campaigners as baseless fearmongering. Now it is the government’s “reasonable worst-case scenario” for the end of transitional arrangements with the EU on 31 December.

The grim scene was set out on Wednesday by Michael Gove, who told parliament that Britain did not yet have an operational border ready for the abrupt reintroduction of regulations and checks necessary to clear a new frontier with Europe’s customs union and single market.

The government’s “check, change, go” campaign, urging businesses to prepare, has been running since July, but inevitably traders’ attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Those that have been worrying about Brexit have found it hard to get through to Downing Street.

The government has no intention of taking responsibility for a border fiasco. Instead, two targets are being lined up for blame – the companies that have to handle the trade, and the EU. Speaking to a parliamentary committee earlier this week, George Eustice, the environment secretary, claimed that “all the work in the world” was being done to prepare on the UK side, but that chaos could not be ruled out as a result of things being “slipshod and disorganised” on the continent.

The frequency with which the government attempts such cynical inversions of the truth should not diminish the shock at hearing a new one. The European commission has been well ahead of the UK in notifying ports about the hazard of new friction at the border and how to mitigate it. Meanwhile, British freight and logistics companies have been pleading with the government to pay more heed to the practical economic implications of Brexit choices that are driven by Eurosceptic dogma.

But Boris Johnson has no interest in dissenting testimony. If Alok Sharma, the business secretary, has doubts about the current plans (or has had doubts thrust on him by anxious traders), the message is unlikely to be forced on a prime minister who expects nodding subservience from his cabinet. Mr Gove has more clout in the government’s upper echelons, but he shows no sign of applying it for the purpose of shaking Mr Johnson out of his complacency.

Instead, the focus is on urging the private sector to do the heavy lifting that the government has been shirking all year. In July, the government promised to train about 50,000 new customs agents to satisfy an expected surge in demand. The number so far recruited is thought to be substantially less (Mr Gove refuses to give a figure) and brokers do not have resources to pre-emptively hire staff in the autumn to save the government’s blushes in winter. IT systems that are meant to lubricate new border controls are not yet up and running. It is impossible for some businesses to prepare fully for new regulatory requirements, because the details depend on the terms of a deal that does not exist.

In a letter to cabinet colleagues, Mr Gove noted that problems at Channel ports will arise “irrespective of the outcome of negotiations”. In other words, the Brexit model that is expected to disrupt the passage of freight, increase the burden of bureaucracy, reduce the volume of trade and slow the economy is one chosen by Mr Johnson. The “reasonable worst case” that ministers warn about is not some accident or unintended consequence. It is a function of the plan they hailed last year as a triumph. And if no deal is done, even worse scenarios are feasible.

Mr Johnson is creating borders where there were none, inflicting cost where none was previously levied, erecting barriers, closing doors and calling it freedom. As the moment of implementation nears, the fraud inherent in the whole enterprise is getting harder to conceal.

-The Guardian