How Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit co-ordinator for the European Parliament, who previously mocked the decision to change from burgundy back to blue, must have chortled when former international development secretary, Priti Patel, described the awarding of the multi-million contract to Gemalto as “a national humiliation”.
The backfiring of a wheeze dreamt up to distract from the publication of sector-by-sector assessments of the impact of Brexit is a humiliation – not so much for the country (which is already an international laughing stock) – but for the ardent Leavers whose hopes of “taking back control” are decomposing faster than the dead fish Nigel Farage last week dumped in the Thames.
In farcical scenes reminiscent of the pre-EU referendum battle of the flotillas, the former Ukip leader boarded a trawler and tossed a crate of haddock into the water in protest at a deal that means the UK will remain subject to the EU Common Fisheries Policy until 2021. It was a novel twist on the dead cat strategy.
We know Verhofstadt found this stunt risible because he took to Twitter to tell us so. He suggested that rather than making a public show of himself, Farage should have done his job when he was a member of the EU fisheries committee “as I told him years ago”. Helpfully, he included old footage of himself berating the then MEP for South East England for criticising other people’s salaries while failing to attend committee meetings.
Farage and others, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, believe the country’s fishermen have been sold down the river by Theresa May, who capitulated to the EU’s demand to retain control of UK waters during an agreed 21-month transition period (though the fishermen had expected the UK to regain it on March 29, 2019 – the day we leave the other 27 nations in the bloc).
As with everything else involving Brexit, however, the real blame lies with those Brexiteers who fostered the mass delusion that separating from the EU would be quick and easy and that, somehow, we’d hold all the cards. Instead, as anyone with any political nous could have anticipated, the negotiations are a complex game of give and take, producing shoddy compromises and “suboptimal” outcomes.
This time, the right to develop our own fishing management model appears to have been sacrificed for the right to negotiate, sign and ratify trade deals. That in itself must seem like treachery to those who trusted it would be otherwise. But the harder truth is that, in the long run, the desire for control will have to be balanced against the need for access to markets. Given that the UK exports 75 per cent of fish caught and landed here, there is no guarantee the pledges made in 2016 will ever be honoured (though Ruth Davidson has vowed to veto any final deal which reneges on them).
So many hopes raised, only to be dashed. And who can blame the SNP, which lost Angus Robertson and Moray to empty promises of increased prosperity, for capitalising on the government’s perceived weakness?
Even now – when the falsehoods at the heart of the Leave campaign have been exposed for all to see – the Brexiteers are still at it, contorting the facts to suit themselves, apparently oblivious to their own distortions and contradictions. Thus those who railed against so-called EU protectionism are now arguing the British company, Gateshead-based De La Rue, which holds the current passports contract, should retain it even though Gemalto offered high quality at a lower price. The new deal is expected to save the taxpayer £120 million over five years, money that could surely be used to deliver a tiny, tiny proportion of that much-trumpeted, but fictitious post-Brexit dividend to the NHS.
As has been pointed out by legal writer David Allen Green, the Brexiteers’ capacity for double think seems to have rubbed off on De La Rue, which pitches itself as a global company – openly boasting about winning government contracts to produce documents around the world – yet doesn’t appear to believe such opportunities should be extended to other European companies.
In the same vein, the Brexiteers are touting procurement rules which force Britain to use a blind tender process and award the contract to the “most economically advantageous” submission, as an example of the bureaucratic shackles from which we will soon be freed. Yet Allen Green says rules on procurement also apply to our World Trade Organisation obligations and are likely to continue as part of any EU/UK trade deal.
Finally, Liz Twist, Labour MP for Blaydon, the constituency in which De La Rue is situated, threw a bit of scaremongering into the mix, suggesting the shift to Gemalto could be a security risk (even though two German companies have held the contracts in the past and a proportion of our burgundy passports have been produced abroad since 2009).
Having run out of empty promises, the Brexiteers moved on to empty threats; on the passport front, Patel called on May to reverse the “disgusting decision”, though she must know that to do so would put the government on the wrong side of the law.
On the fishing front, 12 Tory backbench MPs, some Brexiteers some not, and two DUP MPs, warned they might veto the deal. Those MPs included Robertson’s replacement Douglas Ross, a Remainer who benefited from the support of Leave-voting fishermen. Still, it seems likely the rebels will be mollified by May’s assurances on the eventual rebuilding of the fishing industry despite the efforts of Tory chief whip Julian Smith, who flaunted his woeful grasp of Scottish politics and disregard for human lives by dismissing their fears with the words: “It’s not like the fisherman are going to vote Labour.”
This has been Brexit all over: ignorance, opportunism; ordinary people used as pawns in a dirty political game. Though last week the EU finally agreed guidelines for talks on future trade and security relations, as the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, the issue of what will happen to the Irish border remains unresolved. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour seem sufficiently perturbed by what’s at stake: two decades of peace wrought by serious people, who – despite their biases and agendas – retained some kind of perspective on what really mattered.
The serious people have gone now: replaced by egotistical buffoons who think cheap stunts involving haddock will distract attention from the chaos they themselves have wrought. The fishermen are just the latest victims of their blithe arrogance.