Brexit: End of transition period must be put on hold given Covid and UK Government's shocking lack of preparation – Brian Wilson

The name of Theodore Agnew, Baron Agnew of Oulton, had not impinged on my consciousness until this week.

Lorries practice queuing on the A256 a few miles north of Dover in preparation for the end of the Brexit transition period (Picture: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

That happy state of affairs was disturbed by reports of his appearance before the Treasury Select Committee as Brexit minister for border preparedness – or border unpreparedness, as it soon transpired.

Theo has a well-trodden route to his current brush with greatness – something in the City who patriotically sold his business to Americans for a shedload of money, a substantial chunk of which went to the Tory Party before he was anointed a Lord. Ideal qualifications.

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“There has been a head-in-the-sand approach by traders,” declared fearless Theo. “If there is one headline I hope comes out of this appearance, it is to send another shot over traders’ bows to warn them it is their businesses that are at stake from 1 January and they really must engage in a more energetic way.”

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The sheer effrontery of this statement is not only testimony to individual arrogance but a reflection of the madness being pursued, behind the screen of Covid. “It is their businesses that are at stake,” says Theo – while representing the Government ruthlessly pushing ahead.

Mad boffins press ahead

Under any circumstances, it would be incomprehensible to be 80 days from the biggest economic upheaval in recent UK history without confirmation of the terms. For a Government to have led us down that route in the midst of a pandemic is the height of historic irresponsibility.

If only opposition MPs had supported Theresa May's Brexit deal, the UK would not be facing a no-deal under Boris Johnson (PIcture: Kerry Davis/Daily Mail/PA Wire)

Every single business so patronisingly referred to by Lord Agnew – the manufacturers, exporters, job providers, the lifeblood of the economy – has been struggling with the pandemic for seven months. All common sense demanded the Brexit process should be suspended until that crisis had passed.

Instead, the mad boffins have been pressing ahead with their experiment in Whitehall laboratories, oblivious to the world outside. And now, as it becomes increasingly apparent it could all go crazily wrong, it is time to blame others – in this case the importers and exporters, for having their “heads-in-the-sand”.

I took a look at the transcript of Lord Agnew’s evidence to the committee and it provides a rich seam of material. “The French bit will be outside our control, and it is a concern to me that they will not be as ready as we would like,” he declared. I love that technical term – “the French bit”; in other words the response on the other side of the Channel on which UK exports will be dependent.

Stacks of portaloos

In the name of “taking back control”, we will be dependent on “the French bit” which “will not be as ready as we would like”. Perhaps they too have their heads in the sand, with the follies of British foreign policy taking an inexplicable second place to their own Covid crisis.

Lord Agnew’s evidence then descended into farce as he was questioned about the toileting arrangements for thousands of lorry drivers who will, it is now acknowledged, be stacked up on the motorways of Kent.

“Stacks of portaloos” were being built, he assured the committee. However: “That is a question for the Department of Transport. I am sorry to not have the granularity on it.” Let us hope they do not have their heads in the sand.

This is not an argument about the pros and cons of Brexit. That is long gone. It is about the recklessness of pressing ahead to a fixed timescale as if nothing else was happening in the world and regardless of implications.

This column consistently urged opposition parties to sign up for Theresa May’s deal and abandon the pretence that Brexit could be wished away through the courts. If that had happened, life would have gone on fairly normally and there would have been no Prime Minister Johnson with an 80-seat majority.

We are paying the price for the cynicism and stupidity of many. But there is only one source of the current folly. Even now, the only sane approach would be to stand down the portaloos and put all this on hold.

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