Every newspaper headline today is about the coronavirus pandemic – and understandably so. However, while the government is occupied with Covid-19, the end of the Brexit transition period is drawing nearer.
If an agreement is not reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union, we will crash out without a deal. There will be unpredictable consequences to our economy, to our jobs, incomes and social wellbeing.
Everyone realises that the coronavirus has done great harm to our economy. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has recently warned that the United Kingdom is already spiralling towards a “significant recession”. Many businesses are teetering on the brink, and are solely focused on survival, and ensuring that they are able to open their doors once it is safe to do so.
When everyone is hoping for certainty about a time when the disease will be under control, it is unforgivable for the government to add another uncertainty which it could control. At a time when so many are struggling, the government must not add a cliff-edge no-deal crisis to this hardship, and compound the economic turmoil now facing the country.
This crisis has highlighted the fundamental importance of our health service. We have seen acts of true heroism from the medical and caring professionals on the front line.
The government has deserved our support in its handling of the economic and social effects of Covid-19. The crisis is of a scale beyond experience. In our free society, you cannot avoid criticisms and questions. Comparisons with other countries are oversimplistic and fail to reflect differing social patterns. I conclude the government so far emerges with credit.
The same cannot be said of the government’s approach to the Brexit negotiation or to the financial recovery which alone can save our economy.
The negotiation to conclude the transition period necessitates a rational pursuit of our national interest, not a slavish obsession to abide by any one date. We are going to leave the European Union – that decision has been taken. This is simply about doing what is practical and right when all the nations in Europe are facing severe economic hardship.
Both the EU and the UK government have warned of little progress in the latest talks over a deal – with both sides saying the demands upon them were unrealistic. With time running out the government should put country before ideology and agree to an extension of the transition period in the national interest.
The coronavirus has evoked admirable response from British people in all parts of the country and in all walks of life. The government has so far failed to mobilise this latent strength in the battle to rebuild our economy by evoking a local response from those most directly responsible.
The elected representatives of our great conurbations should be charged with preparing recovery plans that reflect the very different economic strengths from city to city.
They are uniquely positioned to draw together the interdependent strengths of the public and private sectors, to add local contributions to the huge sums of public money that will otherwise be spent as Whitehall thinks best, and to excite in our people a genuine conviction that we are all in this together.
Lord Heseltine is president of the European Movement and a former government minister under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major
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