Two years on from the Brexit referendum, where have we got to? I revisit my eight initial predictions and offer some new ones

 

 

There have been plenty of transport metaphors to be found in the articles on Brexit that are now a regular feature of our daily newspapers, and none of them positive.

Brexit is a lorry that is fast running out of road, a train about to hit the buffers, a coach heading over the cliff leaving its passengers, us, at best stranded like the loveable rogues in
The Italian Job. Or it is a clapped out car wobbling and wheezing towards the finishing line with wheels and bits of bodywork falling off as March next year rapidly approaches.

My favourite, for elegance and accuracy, comes from journalist Rafael Behr. He writes of a plane, piloted by the prime minister and circling in the sky, with Mrs May unwilling to choose one of the limited number of runways available on which to land, as all offer options for the UK that are worse than staying in the EU. Meantime fuel is running low and there is not enough to get back to base.

No doubt gung-ho Brexiteers, and yes, there are amazingly some left, will accuse me of scaremongering. Is it a charge they will also level against Paul Dreschsler, the president of the CBI, who last week warned that the UK automotive sector could “become extinct” without a customs union?

We are already seeing job losses, as companies hold back investment and cut employee numbers. For instance, Wright Group, the Northern Ireland bus manufacturer, has flagged up another round of workforce reductions to follow an earlier round in February.

The… continuing uncertainty… is causing private and public bus operators alike to delay or postpone their vehicle investment programmes

“The… continuing uncertainty… is causing private and public bus operators alike to delay or postpone their vehicle investment programmes,” was how the company’s chairman, Mark Nodder, put it.

Generally, the economy is taking a hit, as Britain underperforms against forecast, and lags behind other EU countries. That affects everything from passenger numbers on trains, with all the implications that has for franchise viability, to the amount of government money available for capital projects. Rather than the promised “Brexit dividend”, we are so far billions out of pocket.

But the problems of short term uncertainty are nothing as compared with the long term damage that exiting the EU will cause.

Already companies have begun moving their operations abroad to try to protect their EU status. These, by the way, include Somerset Capital Management, the creation of arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, which has launched a new investment fund in Dublin.

For the public at large, are they ready for the prospect of longer queues to get into EU countries, with Britain being treated as a “third country” no different from Argentina or Nigeria, when our new blue British passport (made in France) will be a cue to hold us up rather than let us through? Are they ready to pay an administration charge every time they cross the channel? What does all this presage for the budget airlines, for the ferry companies, for Eurostar?

Moreover, the promised land of milk and honey that Brexiteers told us lies just beyond the EU border looks more and more like a mirage. Where are these countries queuing up to do trade deals with us? Not the United States under Trump, that’s for certain. Not unless it’s a one-way street.

What’s worse, it now looks increasingly and ominously likely that we might crash out of the EU with no deal at all, cutting ourselves off from our major market, and even with woefully insufficient practical preparations to go it alone.

According to a recently leaked document, civil servants have warned that it is eminently possible that Dover will “collapse” on Day One, and that within a fortnight the UK will be running short of medicine, imported food and fuel.

Dover handled 2.6 million lorry movements in 2016, carrying 17% of the UK’s trade, worth £119bn. The last time it conducted EU customs checks was 1992 and it is now facing the prospect of an extra 300 million declarations a year. Even seconds more processing time means miles more queues.

The only government response to date seems to have been to make new provision for huge lorry tailbacks and yet more lorry parking. Operation Megastack, perhaps.

So coach companies that travel across the channel are going to have to find more drivers in this scenario, as maximum driver hours are eaten up. Even if EU limits are replaced in this country by the 1968 regime that applies to local buses, there is no doubt the present structure will continue to apply when our drivers enter EU countries, whether we are part of the EU or not. And what about those of us, myself included, who have qualified to be transport managers across the EU? Is that qualification to be rescinded?

These are not the most important questions, but they give a flavour of how Brexit is going to affect us all in a myriad of ways that have not been foreseen or planned for. And questions there are aplenty, with as yet very few answers.

How have we got to this point, two years on from the referendum but still with no clear government position on anything central, let alone any sign of an agreement with the EU?

The depressing answer is that for both major political parties with splits as wide as chasms in their ranks, the priorities for both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have been to keep their tribes intact, and that has meant kicking the can down the road time and again. Neither has wanted to face up to the unpalatable consequences of Brexit, for fear of alienating one bit of their party or other, one section of their voters or another.

So we have, for example, seen an arcane and drawn-out dispute within the cabinet about two alternative approaches to the thorny question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, when the EU has made it crystal clear that neither option is a starter.

In other words, both parties have put their own short-term internal cohesion ahead of the national interest.

The long-promised White Paper that is supposed to set out the government’s detailed position has now had publication delayed until after the June EU summit. That just leaves one further summit, in October, at which to secure agreement with the EU, if their national parliaments, and the European parliament, are going to have enough time to ratify the agreement – and to even assume they will is a leap of faith – before exit day in March next year.

Back in 2016, just days after the Brexit vote, I wrote an article for Passenger Transport (PT138) in which I rather rashly predicted what would now unravel. For the record here were my eight predictions:

  1. Acute economic uncertainty and the postponement of investment plans (correct);
  2. No snap general election (OK I got that wrong, but then so did Theresa May in calling it);
  3. No new transport initiatives (not entirely correct);
  4. Bus Services Bill survives (correct);
  5. Rail projects such as the electrification of the line to Swansea to be dropped (correct);
  6. HS2 could be axed (wrong, at least so far);
  7. Trouble for rail franchising (all too correct);
  8. A decision on airport expansion (correct, though if it finally happens is anyone’s guess).

So emboldened by this relative success, let me look ahead again.

I think it unlikely that the government will be able to produce a position that the EU can sign up to. It is even possible, if it takes much longer, that the EU will declare that the UK has run out of time and will simply pull the plug.

I think it very likely there will be a “meaningful” vote in parliament, and that if it is “no deal” on offer, then that will be rejected

Either scenario will force MPs off the fence and we could see some unlikely cross-party realignment as reality hits home. I think it very likely there will be a “meaningful” vote in parliament, and that if it is “no deal” on offer, then that will be rejected. A second referendum cannot therefore be ruled out.

There is one key question which I have been asking for two years and to which nobody seems to have the answer. Is the UK legally entitled, if it wishes to do so, to unilaterally rescind the triggering of Article 50 before March next year, or do all EU member states have to agree to this? If the latter then prepare for demands over Gibraltar, the UK rebate, and much more in that eventuality.

In the meantime, I am afraid we will see more economic uncertainty, a further drying up of investment, more relocations abroad, a slowing economy at home, and therefore reduced income streams for transport operators, many of whom are already operating on tight margins.

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a rough ride.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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