Why has Brexit come to warnings about food and medicine shortages?

25th July 2018

For some time, one common contention of those supporting Brexit is that the UK should prepare for a “no deal” Brexit.

This preparation would, it is asserted, put pressure on the EU in the exit negotiations because the UK could then threaten to walk away rather than accept a bad deal.

These contentions are all very well while they are glib, pat phrases.

But problems arise when such sound-bites need to be translated into substance.

And it now appears that those problems are arising.

In particular, pro-Brexit government ministers are now – seriously – setting out how food and medicines need to be stockpiled in case the UK leaves the EU without a deal next March.

So, after two years of negotiation with the EU, and after two years of withdrawal legislation clogging up parliament, the most tangible effects of Brexit which pro-Brexit politicians can offer are…

…impending food and medicine shortages.

Well, perhaps the ration books will be blue.

This is not to say that contingency planning is wrong.  It is also not to say that the UK is likely to leave without a withdrawal agreement (on that I am still optimistic, see my post here – but also see the less optimistic comments below).

But Brexit was not supposed to be like this.

What was sold as a form of national liberation is instead becoming a national humiliation.

Another aspect of the government’s botched approach to Brexit came yesterday with the concession in the new white paper that the European Communities Act will, in effect, not be repealed when UK is expected to leave the EU on 29 March 2019.

Through legal sleight-of-hand it will continue in parts until at least the end of the transition period expected to be on 31 December 2020.

This is legal common sense: such far-reaching legislation should not be repealed in a big bang, but dismantled slowly as appropriate.

But the same pro-Brexit politicians who are now reduced to warning of impending food and medicine shortages are the ones who insisted that the government defy legal common sense and have the 1972 Act repealed in one big bang.

Yet again, gesture and superficiality over substance and thought.

And so, as I have set out at the FT, the government now has to amend its own legislation to get round this absurdity.

Stepping back: Brexit did not have to be done this way.  As I have contended elsewhere Brexit could have been done in a sensible way, but it would have taken years and in slow stages.

This would have meant, of course, that Brexit had to be taken seriously.

But few of those in favour of Brexit, either in politics or in the media, take Brexit seriously.

Instead we had short-term headlines and claps and cheers at every unforced error by the government.

So we now have warnings of food and medicine shortages – and from those who not long ago dismissed any concerns as “project fear”.


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34 thoughts on “Why has Brexit come to warnings about food and medicine shortages?”

  1. “Through legal sleight-of-hand it will continue in parts until at least the end of the transition period expected to be on 31 December 2020.”

    David, do you have any idea how this may work if there is no deal and therefore no transition period

  2. What I find shocking about the position we have reached is that things which would once have been thought impossible or bizarre are now simply accepted with a shrug.
    Before the 2016 referendum absolutely noone suggested that two years later the government would seriously be talking about stockpiling food and medicine because of the risk of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. If anyone had suggested it they would have been laughed at.
    And when the terms of the referendum and its safeguards were being discussed in parliament before the act was passed did anyone seriously believe (a) that there was a risk of cheating by one of the official campaigns or (b) that if such cheating happened its consequences would be downplayed or ignored by government, opposition and most of the media?
    I could give other examples. Brexit appears to have normalised the abnormal.

    1. Not just the abnormal but the abhorrent. I don’t think even UKIP had in mind that EU nationals living in the UK would not get automatic right to remain. Instead, May went postal on them. It’s only very stiff lobbying from thousands of us that has caused her to backtrack on the requirement for CSI that would have made thousands of innocent wives and mothers ‘illegal’ overnight and liable to deportation, and we still don’t know if that will apply if there’s a no-deal Brexit. It could make Windrush look like a walk in the park.

    2. “Before the 2016 referendum absolutely noone suggested that two years later the government would seriously be talking about stockpiling food and medicine because of the risk of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.”
      People did suggest it – experts mostly (see below). It was labelled “Project Fear” and not reported very heavily in the media: such was the quality of the pre-brexit ‘debate’. Most of the discussion tended to centre around labour shortages (and the magical money tree). But there was a very clear realisation on the vulnerability of supply chains to any disruption from people who know about these things – and concern about the impact of disrupting critical supply chains like food and medicine. This vulnerability can be reduced, but it takes time and money – and requires some idea of the future state to allow planning.


  3. Sorry, but I am not going to subscribe to the FT in order to read your blog (which is the only part of the FT that interests me). Can you not publish your blog elsewhere?

  4. ‘What was sold as a form of national liberation is instead becoming a national humiliation’ that is the risk when you buy something without any thought or understanding.
    If the Government believes Brexit could have been good idea, they may now attempt to minimise the humiliation element for itself and the voters and deliver some changes, but the government will still be tarred with incompetence as they cannot deliver anything like ‘liberation’. So their best way forward is to ensure that humiliation is widely advertised and demonstrated, so that we can be ‘saved’ from our own idiocy. You never know they could even be thanked for that.

  5. Apparently Heathrow Airport is making plans for a possible two month shutdown.
    One of the problems with making these preparations is that they are expensive and it seems such a shame to make them if you dont use them.

  6. I don’t think the so-called leaders of Brexit had very much idea about the difficulty and complexity of extricating the UK from 40 years of regulation/joint legislation with the EU. My field is cosmetics, which comes under chemicals legislation and I don’t know of a single MP who understood that there is no UK regulator for the chemicals industry (it was wound up in 2013). This has the potential to bring chemicals production, transport and sales to a grinding halt if there is no deal because it would technically be illegal to trade. And guess what’s made of chemicals? Yup, everything. It also means the UK cannot access the ECHA chemicals database to register new substances, etc. Permission to test for substances of concern in the EU was just withdrawn from the UK’s scientists because by the time they report, the UK won’t be in the bloc – the substances that were earmarked for the UK’s labs have been passed to other countries, including France, eroding the UK’s significance in international science and depriving those laboratories of income. It took seven years to thrash out REACH, the regulation under which we currently trade – how long until the UK once again has a regulator when the buildings and personnel have long since been reassigned? This is just one sector: rinse and repeat for who knows how many others?

  7. I voted to leave the EU, a democratic process instigated by a democratically elected Tory government.

    I assumed (wrongly) that we would use the Norway option and then engage in a long term plan.

    Nieve mabey.

    August is a bad month to start to panic, it’s a slow news month so everything is magnified. We have a danger here of a mass freak out of gigantic proportions. If you think this is bad wait until winter, the panic will be biblical.

    A way out?

    New referendum, dangerous.

    An election? An unknown.

    Begging like Little Finger begged for his life in Game of Thrones to stay in EU. Possible but we would have to accept everything. Would the population buy it?

    Norway, preferable.

    What ever happens and whatever we do the United Kingdom is finished, the four kingdoms will split.

    Mabey that’s for the best.

    1. I’m a hard Remainer who would like to see the UK in Schengen and the Euro. I am furious at being disenfranchised in the referendum, which I regard as highly UN-democratic. But it seems even to me that Norway is a reasonable compromise option.

      1. You don’t care about UK being an independent state and making its own choices then, you’d presumably prefer to be governed from Brussels, with all the pointless expensive regulations imposed by remote bureaucrats. Not sure why anybody would prefer to be governed by a largely foreign power? Please answer: why do we need another layer of (unaccountable) government above our own in Westminster?

        1. Being independant’n’stuff is fine and well as far as you are acting in field were no other bodies, be it states or private enterprises, operate. In the highly integrated and complex societies and economies of today this additional layer of regulation harmonises rules, norms, practises, customs, laws, etc. for one of the largest economic and travel areas. To step away from this common framework – which leaving the EU essentially is – means in practice for the UK, because of the geographic reality that she can’t be towed across the atlantic, still having to abide by every EU standard (because UK companies will want to lose as few of their EU customers as possible) without having a say in their creation. It also means stripping away layers of protection for workers, safety standards, etc. Mind you, that even with them in place many preventable accidents happen, like the grenfell tower fire and working conditions in many areas are catastrophic, like in zero hour contracts. Without them, even more is bound to happen, because there are strong incentives in business for cutting corners in every possible way. Also prominent Leavers have time and again cited legal framework like the working time directive as obstacles for british business. And when an accident happens, the persons concerned will most likely have less legal power, because it is most unlikely and would be quite incoherent to strip away one set of rules (because they are believed to be restraints) if one only plans on replacing them by others, covering the same areas.

          In practice what you lay out as an undesirable status quo will be the future of the UK: UK companies will have to consider rules set by people not in any way accountable to the british people, because the UK will no more have representation in the EU parliament, comission and council (which are the fully democratically legitimised bodies of the EU, because their members are elected on national and european levels). Not being part of the EU means UK business will have to abide by EU directives without having a say in their creation and thus be “governed by a largely foreign power”.

        2. Because the regulations, when they follow those of the EU, ipso facto make them compatible with those of the other 27 nations, and allows all of us to trade easily

          1. That means accepting the fact, that in the future you will have no say in the creation of regulation, you would under different circumstances help creating. Instead you’ll have to take regulation from a then foreign body you are leaving in part because of its perceived imposition of Regulation? How will that in practice translate into taking back control?

        3. You’re right – I don’t believe in the UK being an independent state. I believe in pooled sovereignty in the modern age, not in tiny nation states attempting to make their own way in the world. Nor do I believe the UK is ‘governed from Brussels’ – this is nationalistic nonsense. The UK has been a key and powerful player in the EU for 40 years – its rules our of our making. I believe in collaboration and co-operation, not jingoism. Brexit will take the UK back 50 years – it may never recover from the blow.

    2. 1. I think you need to reconsider your ideas around ‘democracy’. FPTP is hardly democracy as understood today. There are no Tory MPs from N Ireland.

      2. The referendum was about internal Tory party politics, an attempt to see off UKIP. We were not told that there could be food shortages if things went badly; we weren’t told all that much. At least, I can cross the border in the event to do the shopping. And it’s only now that the full complexity of Brexit is apparent; this is 2 years post-referendum. This is the stuff we needed before we voted. And if the Cabinet is unified on the UK’s (read: England’s) approach, it certainly doesn’t sound like it.

      3. The Scots were told that the best way to be in the EU was to vote against independence in their referendum. And they voted against Brexit; fat lot of good it did them, as ever the English had the final word. So yes, there’s a good chance that the UK will fall apart. Poor Lord North, rather unfairly branded as the worst PM ever for losing the American colonies, will be replaced by May and Cameron who will certainly deserve that moniker.

      1. No argument from me, an independent English nation is fine with me.

        Just one question.

        How is it when a proud Scot raises his flag he is a romantic nationalist and when a proud Englishman raises his flag he is a nationalistic monster.

        Just an observation.

        1. Simple.

          Wales was militarily conquered and then subsumed by the English.

          The Scottish parliament was cajoled, threatened, bullied and bribed into proroguing itself in 1707. (Note; despite what it says in Gove’s History, this wasn’t because of the Darien colony; rather the English Tory lords were afraid that the Scots would call in their mortgages.) Scotland also provided England with two kings whom the English dispatched.

          The Irish parliament was cajoled, threatened, bullied and bribed into proroguing itself in 1800. In the late 18th century the Irish parliament had thrown off the last vestige of English rule (Poyning’s Law); however the French invaded in “the ’78” and the English were fearful that such continental ideas of equality etc would then infect England. England also oversaw An Gorta Mór and did little.

          So, the Welsh, Scots and Irish nationalist thinks of Freedom, in particular freedom from the English yoke. The English nationalist looks to an imaginary time when England ruled the world, the fuzzy-wuzzies knew their place, and a literal or metaphorical gunboat would do the trick; and they see that this has gone and cannot be recovered.

        2. Because, for a very long time, England and Britain became synonymous. Patriotic Englishmen flew the Union Jack; Scots or Welshmen asserting their national identity independent of the English flew St Andrew’s saltire or the Red Dragon. The only people flying St George’s cross were racists and thugs.

  8. Why? Because accountability to the law is non existant top down. Sedition defined as any act causing government, law, constitution, sovereign to be held in hatred and contempt. This means we have been required to seek consensus government, not elected misrepresentation. If Prime Ministers and your street corner bobby dont see the need to be prosecuted for deciding for others in violation of thw law that guarantees those rights, its already a failed state.

  9. In 1914, Britian was a very unequal society in terms of wealth and income. The then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had a substantial private income, so didn’t need to work; he was a mediocre classicist, a man who spoke no modern foreign language, one who had never been to ‘Europe’. He was half-blind and morbidly, chronically depressed following the death of his wife.

    He could not have known that such great inequality affects all in society, from the richest to the poorest. And not just in health, but also in education. In such a society, even those who go to ‘top’ public schools and ‘top’ universities are, on average, less able than their peers in more egalitarian countries.

    Sir Edward was not a fit person to be Foreign Secretary; he could not see what was happening in that summer, and the UK fell or stumbled into the Great War.

    Are things so different today? Are those in charge of Brexit really as able and clever as they think? Are they the equal of their negotiating partners in the EU, all of whom were educated in much less unequal societies, for example, France?

  10. If you were to simply say that May has royally screwed up the entire proceedings and wasted two years into the bargain, you’d not be far wrong.

  11. This whole thing feels like trying to “square the circle”. It strikes me that there are only two actual options:
    a) remain a member, pay the fees, follow the rules, receive the benefits
    b) leave, don’t pay fees, don’t follow the rules, get no benefits of membership
    And yet there’s this belief of a “have cake and eat it” third option:
    c) leave, don’t pay fees, don’t follow the rules, retain the benefits
    There is nothing to negotiate. The EU says choose a) or b), HMG says we want c); it’s obvious how the EU responds to that!
    What am I missing?

    1. The UK has traditionally been half-in Europe and half-out. What the EU is now doing is saying we have to choose between being all-in or all-out. So I agree with your analysis

      The beginning and ends of relationships are very important for what comes after. The underlying balance of power in many marriages goes back to the chats and discussions that occurred when that couple were first getting together, so the discussion is very much about laying the foundations for the next fifty years. In that sense it is very important for the UK to be seen to be trying to be a good neighbour on leaving so that when it all goes wrong the UK population and foreign powers will understand that the UK made every effort to be a good neighbour and the EU rejected it. No doubt many on the EU side are having similar discussions.

  12. All organisations have all sorts of preparations in case things go wrong. Some of these inevitably look quite extreme. It is part of sensible management. Leaving the EU is clearly a significant change, and legal outcomes may be unclear, so there is a large degree of risk attached, hence preparations.

    This debate needs to be understood in terms of two features, one of which is attitude to risk, and the other is the evolution of the EU from economic alliance to federal super-state.

    Firstly, what we are seeing is a significant push from technocratic managers to make the case for their continued running of the nation and the EU. The argument goes roughly that progress comes from an enormous bureaucracy moving at a snail’s pace so that there are no risks. What this approach ignores is the enormous cost that people end up paying for this super-insurance both financially as all this has to be paid for and in terms of opportunity cost. Most developments in technology and business occur through evolution; many ideas are tried, and the market selects the winners; the no-risk approach requires the results of an evolutionary approach to be predicted beforehand; this is obviously impossible. The requirement to predict results before experiment effectively kills all development through evolution in those societies that practice it; Rigid forward planning gives you the Trabant, innovation and experimentation with no guarantee of success gives the Volkswagen Golf. Which vehicle do you wish to drive? And why are you opting for the process that gives you the other one?

    Secondly there is the issue of regulation and international convention versus the EU as a federal super-state. What has happened in Europe is that a group of Federal Europe fanatics appear to have grabbed hold of the reins of power and are using international rules and regulations as weapons to force recalcitrant nations to submit to their federal ambitions. the UK, having rejected a Federal superstate, must be cast outside the web of international regulation to punish it and force smaller nations to comply. So the threats about short-term issues are part of a plan to remove UK independence and force us into the super-state.

    Finally there is the notion that the UK could have parked itself in a vehicle such as Norway or Switzerland as a prelude to prolonged negotiations. These may logically have been sensible, but the level of distrust of the political establishment is now so high I don’t know a single Leave voter who would regard such an arrangement as anything other than an attempt by a pro-EU fightback from the establishment to force re-entry into the EU without the commitment of the referendum, which was to Leave the EU, ever having been implemented.

    For many Leavers, the battles going on now are essential battles. It comes down to the notion of what a nation is, and what the point of a nation is. For me, a nation is a means of creating a group of people who stand together and look after each other. It isn’t about being better than anyone else. I expect other people to form nations, and I expect my government and their governments to work together for the best outcomes for all. What we are seeing is the destruction of the UK as a nation in the sense that I have described it. Groups of people have fallen off the political chart as the nations’ institutions have focused in our part in the European super-state. The interests of our fishing communities have been dropped because it was decided that someone else needed the fish in the waters off our coast more than they did. The interests of our poorer communities have been forgotten as giving employment opportunities to people in Eastern and Southern Europe became more important than training our own children for careers such as nurse or doctor. We see more and more people dropping off the radar, and this process being justified by calling them racists, stupid, or bigots, hence depriving them of their status as citizens.

    Finally, some of you may have noticed cries of treason coming from some of the more extreme Brexit elements and dismissed it as lunatics on the far right. I know of many sensible educated people who look at what is going in with jaws dropping. The UK government is in critical negotiations with representatives of foreign powers, and meanwhile our MP’s and members of the opposition shadow cabinet are going off and conducting side negotiations with the same foreign powers? Seriously this just about breaks all accepted protocols. where are the transcripts and minute of what was discussed? Did they discuss bringing down the government so they could get power? If not, why did they go? A letter in The Guardian from many women including women MPs warns women’s rights will be at risk if we stop having EU laws. Seriously, what elected representative in their right mind actively campaigns for someone else to impose laws on us? Name any other comparable nation that thinks that its future interests are best served by allowing other nations to decide their laws and take money from them?

    The short-term food risks can easily be managed. We can just let food in (and for those worrying about standards, remember that EU regulations gave us beef that was in fact horse). The long-term risks as to whether our votes will ever count for anything again are the ones that concern many people right now and are why support for leaving remains very high.

    1. This sounds like nationalistic nonsense to me. The EU is not remotely a Federal Superstate – what a lot of tosh. It’s basically a regulatory organisation, in which we have played a crucial part. And nothing is calculated to break up the UK quicker than a hard Brexit. You act as if everyone voted for this – well, we didn’t. I couldn’t vote at all. My husband couldn’t vote. My friends couldn’t vote. I know virtually no-one who was allowed a vote in the gerrymandered referendum, which I do not regard as legitimate, even if there had not been illegal overspend by every faction of the Leave campaign. The EU is a far more forward-thinking, liberal and egalitarian institution than is the UK – the UK’s backwardness on trades unions, maternity provision and human rights is one reason I left the country to live in France, where people are far more respected as human beings. Sadly, the influence and power of the EU in the UK is remarkably low, hence the stranglehold on the national media by the right and far-right. The UK has done nothing but thrive since we joined the then EEC – we were on our knees before it and will be again afterwards. And believe me, Britain’s young people will take the country back into the EU as soon as they possibly can, if this travesty goes ahead. They think of themselves as Europeans as well as British and have no time for this nationalist rubbish.

  13. Whilst we are on the subject, one of the most basic jobs of a government is to preserve the independence, integrity, and freedom of the nation. This is not just about stopping people invading your nation, it is also about preventing your nation being held to ransom.

    So what on earth have successive governments been doing? How come we are in a position where, if we believe what we are told, failure to accept the what foreign powers offer us will swiftly bring us to our knees? If true, this is a major failure of government to do a fundamental task.

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