Back in July 2005, London won the right to hold the 2012 Olympics. Obviously, preparations began before the bidding process. According to Wikipedia “The British Olympic Association had been working on the bid since 1997, and presented its report to government ministers in December 2000.”
Even with so much preparation there were issues: the initial cost estimate was £2 billion, and this spiralled to 9 billion by the time of the bid. The event very nearly fell into chaos with the army stepping in to support G4S, who failed to provide the promised staff.
The 2016 referendum has committed the country to a massive project, even though there is no clear idea what people want. May’s tautology that “Brexit means Brexit” is unhelpful here. People have joked about how everyone claiming to be experts on customs unions didn’t know they existed a year ago – voters are now learning that many of the critical issues about Brexit were not discussed in the run-up to the poll. The Leave campaigns were not responsible for plans or timescales – and were never obliged to be. They only fought on the terms of the limited question asked. Indeed, some people have suggested the Leave campaign would have preferred a close loss, allowing time to prepare for a second, more substantive referendum question.
Today, June 6th, we are 296 days from article 50 taking place. We have 919 days until 31 December 2020, the end of the transition period (which is yet to be confirmed. From wikipedia: “On 19 March 2018, the transition period has been agreed while it can not be considered legally binding until after ratification of a wider agreement on withdrawal”).
If we’re leaving Europe, where are the preparations? HMRC say there is years of work to be done after the decision on customs systems is made. Jon Thompson, chief executive and permanent secretary at HM Revenue and Customs, said in a committee session that it is possible that a functioning border could be ready for January 2021, but that it might take between 3-5 years to implement the solution. However, “foreign ports might not be ready”.
In the same session, HMRC also said that the customs arrangements could cost businesses £20 billion a year. This is an emotive figure as it is slightly more than the £350 million a week that was promised to the NHS on the campaign bus. Admittedly Downing Street then referred to HMRC figures as speculation, which is alarming in itself – HMRC is possibly at odds with the government about such an important issue.
Setting up new major IT projects is expensive, difficult and rarely works to schedule. Universal Credit was originally estimated to cost £2.2 billion, which has since risen to £15.8 billion. The project has been dogged by IT problems – and this is a system that was critical for people’s lives.
Ian Dunt (a remainer who works on the Remainiacs podcast) has claimed that there is also a need for massive regulatory infrastructure, which would have to be in place before the end of any transition period. Without remaining part of certain EU bodies, we would need to reinstitute them from scratch. As he goes on to say, “Setting up a new regulator takes a lot of time and money. You need to lease a building, set up a management structure, hire and train thousands of members of staff, and develop complex technical expertise.”
I’ve not seen any indication of these things taking place. The obvious conclusion is that the government/civil service have decided that Brexit is not happening and this is a charade. Because the alternative is a very dangerous type of brinksmanship. Surely everyone involved knows this is the case? That is is possible impossible and dangerous to try leaving the EU?
Daniel Hannan has mocked these concerns as a continuation of Project Fear. His examples of countries surviving outside the EU are irrelevant, as what we’re talking about here is changing how our country works with a fixed deadline. Remember how KFC switched suppliers and ran out of chicken? Just-in-time supply networks are incredibly vulnerable to disruption. Remember the fuel protests in 2000? Some supermarkets rationed food, and “Sainsbury’s warned that they would run out of food within days having seen a 50% increase in their sales over the previous two days”.
Brexit has become an end in itself. We have focussed our entire politics around the idea of leaving the EU, something that is probably not possible in the deadlines that have been imposed. Because there was no clear goal related to the exiting of the EU (whether standards of living, national pride, control of the borders, whatever it was) we have no way to see if we have made this a success. And we have no way of evaluating other means of achieving these goals.
I’m seeing a lot of platitudes about Brexit, and a lot of reassurance from people who’ve never delivered projects of this scale. I’m seeing no substantive plans, even as we approach the deadlines. I’m not sure what the answer is (it’s certainly not holding another referendum). But we need to admit now if this is impossible. And we also need to work out what we want beyond Brexit. We are currently an unhappy and divided country, and without facing our problems that is going to get worse.