Can it really be three whole years since I, your humble sketch writer, gazed upon the dawn horizon over a disused airfield in Kent and saw, with my own disbelieving eyes, a queue of 100 heavy goods vehicles, all being paid with public money to stage a fake traffic jam to Dover and back?
This was all Chris Grayling’s idea. Back then, the government’s main Brexit plan was to try and convince the EU it was serious about pursuing no-deal Brexit, even though it definitely wasn’t, because it would have been utterly stupid. And so it had no choice but to try and prove its own stupidity through Kent-based war games that showed it really was getting ready to, in effect, place economic sanctions on itself if the EU didn’t give us various concessions we hadn’t decided on yet, knowing that it couldn’t give us to them anyway.
Naturally, our bluff was called, in the sense that they could see we weren’t stupid enough to really pursue no-deal Brexit, but could also see we definitely were stupid enough to pretend we would and that they would believe it.
So off the lorries went for a 30-mile drive down the A599 before doing a U-turn at an assigned roundabout inside the port of Dover and going straight back to where they started again – the easiest and most pointless morning’s work in the history of road haulage.
Despite no-deal Brexit never quite happening, the real traffic jams are happening now and, as was forewarned, they have rather shown the fake one up to be even more ridiculous than was believed at the time.
For most of last week there was a 24-hour wait or more to get through the port of Dover. “Operation Brock” had to be deployed, a depressingly regularly practised exercise in which one of Britain’s major motorways, the M2, is temporarily turned into a lorry park.
The problems have been blamed on bad weather, which does not appear to have caused problems on the other side of the channel, where weather conditions are the same. Or they have blamed the bottleneck on the sudden shutdown of all P&O Ferries routes, reducing capacity by a third. But again, the bottleneck is only occurring on one side.
And, finally, on a mass failure of the new post-Brexit customs IT system.
Back when we were pointing and laughing at the pretend traffic jams, it was occasionally pointed out that independent analysis of the problem made clear, over and over again, that any kind of delay for customs checks, even just for a couple of minutes, would decimate supply chains almost instantaneously. At the time, people seemed to fail to understand what a delay of just a few minutes for every lorry even meant. Lorries are regularly delayed. Traffic is unpredictable. But they tend to be caused by a mass, single incident, which is eventually dealt with. IT problems mean a delay inflicted on each vehicle, individually, while checks are carried out manually (there are not as many checkers as lorries), and chaos rises with devastating exponential certainty.
There is also, even now, a tendency to approach this horror show from the perspective of something having gone wrong. That it is only a blip. It will be sorted out. It’s nothing of the kind. There is no sane person on the Eurosceptic side of the divide who can possibly claim that bureaucratic difficulties in trading and moving goods between the UK and the single market is not the certain price paid for Brexit. It was the whole point of Brexit, once the type of Brexit we wanted had been decided, years after the referendum, and which bears scant relation to the ideas sold to the voters at the time.
All this, back in 2016, didn’t matter. Kent being a lorry park simply wasn’t a problem, because it’s 2022 now and all these massive obstacles and immovable nightmares in trade between the UK and what will always – always – be its biggest export market, would have faded into irrelevance courtesy of all the big, beautiful new trade deals with the US, China, India and everywhere else, ready to go on day one. (Obviously, none of them were, and two out of those three are yet to fully decide whose side they’re on in what is becoming increasingly hard to describe as anything other than a genocidal war in Europe.)
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Brexit’s not fully to blame for everything. Attempts to blame P&O Ferries firing all its staff overnight on Brexit were wide of the mark. Neither UK nor EU labour laws would have stood in their way. But it does seem reasonable to wonder whether any of the 800 workers, sacked in a second with no consultation at all, might have voted for Brexit themselves, and whether, when they did so, all that stuff they’d been told about no more undercutting of British jobs with cheap foreign labour might have come into it. It didn’t quite come to pass, did it.
The British public spent so long arguing about Brexit before it had actually happened that there is, even now, an inability to quite understand that it actually has now, and that its consequences aren’t potential but absolutely real.
Hopefully we can, at least, have a more grown-up conversation about it. Time, in other words, to stop pretending.
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