I have two drafts for this blog, both begun weeks ago, waiting to be finished. They are structured and I have all the evidence and the ideas. On what, you might ask?  On our hopeless government and its incompetence in dealing with the Covid pandemic, of course. With these, as with this piece, the aim is not to rant but to pull together the evidence and set out an appraisal of what has happened over these past months.  But where to start, because I have despaired at not just the sheer incompetence and the slow start of our government to actually comprehend what they had to deal with, and all down to the sheer laziness of our leader, no it’s the wasted millions of our money on useless procurement, and the actual corruption of this government with contracts awarded to private firms without the usual tendering process that renders me near to speechlessness, and wonder, actually, that we are not all out on the streets demanding retribution.  And all based on an ideology of neoliberalism with the aim to have everything, everything run by private companies, which is absolutely the bedrock of their thinking.

I take our great leader to task not only for his ideology but for his pooterish statements that has led to the constant use of aggressive symbolism such as ‘we are wrestling the virus to the ground’ and phrases such as ‘world-beating’, which is used over and over again to describe the faulty testing and tracing we have in the UK.  One day I happened to stumble across the Scottish leader, Nicola Sturgeon, issuing a press statement on the necessity of a lockdown in Aberdeen, and rather envied the Scots for her quiet, calm clarity and her ability to admit that she didn’t have the answer to a question from the press. To give you insight to his mind (yes, we actually need to do this) I give you a long quote from an article by Ferdinand Mount in the London Review of Books, which within it had a quote from Johnson’s speech at the Painted Hall in Greenwich on the glories of free trade. Can you see where this piece is going?

“We are starting, Johnson claimed, ‘to hear some bizarre autarkic [?] rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.’ “

I dare say the above went down well with this audience, but there you go, some country willing to take off its Clark Kent specs…..? Unbelievable self-important and stupid meaningless rhetoric. The article then goes on to dissect Johnson’s first calamitous months not dealing with Covid-19. But, yes, where are we with our ‘oven-ready’ (another favourite) trade deal?  Who can say what is happening with our last minute Brexit talks? I don’t see much about this in the media. And yet some critically important steps should be taken if we are not to crash out with a no-deal.  Remember that? It really is the undiscussed elephant in the room.

According to Anand Menon (see below for reference) both the EU and the Brits do want a deal. But as his article then goes on to highlight the differences between the two sides, a deal is in no way a certainty. So where are we exactly?

First of all, the United Kingdom left the EU at midnight on 31 January 2020, and we are now in a transition period until 31 December 2020.  In this transition period all EU rules and regulations are still applied to the UK and nothing has changed. So if some of the 52% who voted to leave are thinking, ‘well, can’t see much difference’, there is no difference – yet.

There are some areas that have been agreed in a new(ish) Withdrawal Agreement signed by Johnson, which are:

  • The rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU
  • Our financial liabilities to the EU
  • And border protocols (as in border checks, something that was promised would never happen) between Ireland and Northern Ireland

What has not been agreed is any future trade deal.  Neither have any frameworks been agreed for cross-national collaboration on security, terrorism, mutual recognition of qualifications, financial services, farming, fishing, data policy, aviation – the list could go on and on and on.  Look at it this way, the UK and the EU are linked by intricate contracts, regulations and rules that ease the passage of goods and services and peoples across and between the nations of Europe. I think the best way to see this is think of a huge wall made up of multi-coloured lego bricks built over many years.  Then one day someone, who came in a bit later than the ones who had begun building the wall, said, ‘I’d like my bricks back.’  This leaving is complicated.

What are the sticking points? The answer is that there are many, but perhaps the most significant is that with regard to trade the EU would like a ‘level playing field’ so that there isn’t a competitor on their doorstep undercutting EU firms, and therefore wants guarantees and commitments on standards. Meanwhile the very last thing the UK apparently wants is any EU regulation post Brexit. Indeed, our chief negotiator, has said that the whole point of the project is to not have any EU supervision and to ask for it is to fail to see the whole point of the UK leaving the EU. Talks have now ceased for the summer (there never seems to be any urgency on the part of politicians with this holidaying during pandemics and these negotiations with the EU) and the two sides are therefore not anywhere near to getting a trade deal.

A deal needs to be agreed between the two parties by the end of October in order for it to be ratified by EU member states, and there is always a possibility that a deal might be agreed. Menon argues that in the time left for this to happen, it would be a ‘thin’ one, on just tariffs and quotas, everything else would have to be negotiated over many months if not years.

Johnson won the election on getting Brexit done, and I write this so that if a trade deal of sorts is negotiated, and see above, it will only be of the thin kind, do not fall for the line that this is Johnson’s triumph. This will cost us. Modelling from the institute, UK in a Changing Europe, estimates that the negative impact over ten years would be 6.4% of GDP, and 8.1% if there is a no-deal and we crash out on WTO terms. Incidentally this model points to much less damage coming from Theresa May’s deal at 4.9%.

Today it has been announced that the UK is officially in recession, the deepest since records began with our gross domestic product falling by 20.4% in the second quarter, by far the worst fall of any of the G7 countries, and all due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is such a shame that at the end of the year we add to this financial disaster through a self-inflicted wound that began with our vote to leave the EU.

Penny Kocher, 12 August 2020

Further reading:

Anand Menon, In case you’d forgotten. Anand Menon on the Brexit talks. London Review of Books Vol 42, Number 16, 13 August 2020

Ferdinand Mount, Superman Falls to Earth. Ferdinand Mount of Boris Johnson’s first year. London Review of Books Vol 42, Number 13, 2 July 2020

Richard Partington, Covid-19: UK economy plunges into deepest recession since records began. The Guardian, 12 August 2020







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11 thoughts on “The elephant in the room

  • 12th August 2020 at 15:16

    The herd of elephants in the room are growing! There is SO much to worry about! The lack of negotiation with the EU is terrifying as is the lack of information about anything.

    I think they are playing us for fools and unfortunately a lot of us are and apathy seems to be the biggest problem everywhere. My anxiety for our country, for our youngsters, and for ourselves is crippling logical thought for many and makes me afraid for the future.

    I enjoyed your Blog Penny. Keep up the good work.

    • 14th August 2020 at 15:16

      This government is just such a disgrace – where do you begin? That is what puts me off writing about their not dealing with the pandemic. It’s beyond incompetent. And as for the EU and our talks about our trade and everything else. It was always the plan for some Tories to crash out. I know it isn’t/wasn’t all Tories, but those who want this disaster are now in power.

      I only hope the youngsters who are getting their downgraded A-level results remember how they feel when it comes to vote in the next GE.

      I share your anxiety Sandra.

  • 12th August 2020 at 16:30

    Well Penny, I agree with everything you and the previous comments said and yes, I’m furious, enraged and distraught because the UK press and media are going along with the line that Johnson and his Government constantly put out and that is, move along there’s nothing to see here. There has been nothing but lies and deceit – or worse corruption – from this Government and the really terrifying thing is, they are bold, brazen and getting away with it. But what can we do? Years now of protest and court action about the Brexit behaviour have come to nothing and I suspect the same will happen when the Covid 19 enquiry happens. If it happens, it will be the usual dead cats, dog whistling, gaslighting and all the other new fangled phrases used to describe the utterly evil strategy the Tories employ to protect their rich, powerful, elite puppet masters.

    • 14th August 2020 at 15:20

      It is amazing how this government seem to be getting away with it. See my response above, I can only hope that the youngsters getting their down-graded A-level results remember this algorithm fiasco and have had their eyes opened and vote accordingly in the next GE. I do have some hope in the competence of Starmer. I just hope the Labour Party behaves itself!!!!

  • 14th August 2020 at 15:04

    Its not just only trade negotions that are concerning – it is the destruction of democracy in planning. At the moment local councils have a Local Plan which details what can be built. The plan of Boris (Dominic Cummings) is to remove all planning responsibility from planners and allow developers to build what they like where they like. Alledgedly this is because the planning process is so slow. Not totally true – there are over 1million planning applications for houses approved, but not being built. This is because councils demand social housing as well as 5 bed detached homes, and the developers only want to build homes that bring them greatest profits.

    • 14th August 2020 at 15:22

      Everything this government does is about centralising power into the hands of the few. They seem to hate local government even Tory LAs.

      We live in challenging and undemocratic times.

    • 17th August 2020 at 12:16

      Oh how I agree Sarah. The answer to the housing shortest is not to allow commercial developers even greater freedoms. They have no interest in building enough homes to reduce the ludicrous prices being charged – why would they. I was a local councillor 2010 to 14 (could not take any more!) and I know that developers only have to whisper the words ‘lack of viability’ and councils roll over so no truly affordable homes are ever built. Developers put in outline applications for land they know is outside that identified for housing and try to show that the allocations are inadequate. Local Councils can’t afford to keep responding to inevitable appeals against decisions. Central government nearly always finds for developers at public enquiries, whatever local people think. There was a huge local planning exercise during my time where local authorities had to show how they would meet housing target imposed on them. If they could not do this, for whatever reasons, the plans were sent back until they did. At least Councils can now build again ( Mrs T stopped them doing so when council house were sold off) but they are competing for land at inflated prices. My LA is building on land it already owns but it is so steep that it must be costing much more than a level site would. Many councils sold off their own housing or had it managed externally to bring in income to support other functions.

      • 17th August 2020 at 13:16

        A councillor – how brave of you, it is so demoralising to have to listen to lie after lie at Planning Enquiries. At least I did not have to toe the line as I represented environmental organisations. But the system was wrong in only allowing 5 mins to state your case., and no come back if the developer lied (as usually happened). But at least you could state it – now there is no chance. Are people aware of this? do they realise that BJ is just removing peoples rights?

  • 17th August 2020 at 13:06

    As you know Penny I agree with you about the horrendous mess that is this government. Richard Horton’s recent slim volume about Covid 19 is trenchant in its accusations of corruption & collusion leading to an abuse of power. Similar criticisms are made of other national governments but the extent of incompetence, arrogance and downright disinformation from our government is second only to that of the USA. I shall be interested to read the book again to see how far the author’s predictions and concerns are borne out in the future. Matt Hancocks’ recent announcement that PHE is to be abolished smacks to me of the beginnings of deflecting responsibility away from himself. Not that I think the body had much to recommend it but then how competent is Test and Trace under Dido Harding? It is interesting to note that her Conservative MP husband has called for the NHS to be replaced by an insurance system & for PHE to be scrapped.
    I’m reading a book by Robert Verkaik called ‘Posh Boys ; how English Public Schools Ruin Britain’. It’s a polemic of course but interesting nonetheless, especially looking at the history of these
    establishments. Winchester College is the oldest, originally set up by Bishop William of Wickham to educate 70 poor boys. Boarders now pay £40,000 a year. There are still 70 ‘scholars’ ( exceptionally gifted boys,) who may or may not get bursaries, & wear gowns to identify them as such.
    As to Brexit, we do not agree. I can’t see why anyone should adhere to the rules of a club they have decided to leave. There is a profound difference between the countries of Europe & their governments and the bloated, extravagant, undemocratic and failing institution that is the EU. Unfortunately there seems to be a general view that leaving the EU and ‘turning our backs on Europe’ are the same thing .I can only speak for myself in saying that they are not to me.

    • 19th August 2020 at 07:12

      I continue to be beyond amazed at this government and almost astonished that they’re putting Dido Harding in charge of the new body, whatever it’s called. I mean, what??? Is there really no-one else???

      This is beyond incompetence, it is deliberate nepotism and near corruption. It is so very very shocking, but I refuse to go into a ‘what can we do’ mode. To be fair I don’t think the general public should know every detail of every part of government this why we elect people to govern for us, but this government is taking us to uncharted waters of a dramatically reduced democracy.

      And it is great we can have a discussion on many things including subjects we fundamentally disagree on! I hold a very very different view of us leaving the EU, but that’s fine because we should always aim to see clearly how differently people think from each other. It is so dangerous to be in a ‘bubble’ of people who think just like you, this leads us nowhere as there has to be compromise somewhere. Don’t forget after the shock of the vote (seems aeons ago) I always said I would have gone with it all, really I would have, if someone had come along with vision and a good strategy, of which re: the latter, there was none. To make it up as you go along which is what happened has led us to a very dismal place. But there I shall stop.

      Thanks for reading the piece and look forward to our next discussion… Meanwhile this government and… no I really will stop!

  • 26th August 2020 at 10:05

    I’ve just been listening to John Sergeant on youtube – he did a series of short talks for Saga. Such a lovely voice and such a lovely man. He reminisced about his time as a BBC correspondent in Saigon when there was a daily briefing nicknamed the Four O’clock Follies which, with a slight change, could well describe the Govt briefings in lock down. For me an excuse to have a G&T and a good laugh! If only it were really funny instead of shockingly manipulated. Still fuming………………………………….


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