British business and finance are holding their breath. Few can quite believe that a British government could drive the British economy this close to the brink. Surely no sane government, entrusted with our collective wellbeing, could calmly contemplate imposing on its citizens immense trade disruption, transport chaos, shortages in medicine, fresh foods and key technologies? Then there’s the rise in unemployment created by two lockdowns and widespread bankruptcies. Even a minimalist deal, as John Major said last week, will be far more brutal than anyone expects.
Yet for what? A utopian conception of sovereignty that even in the full flush of empire never held true? Surely rationality must prevail and a deal that goes well beyond the skinny Canada-style deal with the EU – which Boris Johnson says is all he wants – will be struck?
But here we are. As I write, with days to complete negotiations and secure ratification, nobody knows whether there will be no deal – or “Canada”, which is barely better. The reasons are well rehearsed. A reckless, unfocused, Brexit-obsessed prime minister. A Tory party in thrall to its Brexiter ultras. A lapdog rightwing media. And too many of the potential countervailing forces, from the opposition through to business itself, are afraid of offering high-profile arguments for something better out of fear of being cast as undemocratic Remoaners.
Thus the obvious goes unsaid. Britain has no option but to engage extensively with the continent of which it is part. It always has. It always will. Global Britain is just another vacuous slogan. Whatever happens on 1 January is but the beginning of another chapter in Britain’s relationship with Europe. Of course we will have to strike trade bargains on everything from organic food to cars. Equally, with services, whether we’re talking trade in data or mutual recognition of audit standards, there will have to be an accommodation with the 450 million people on our doorstep. And because they are part of a bigger unit, they will get more of their way than we will ours. Only Brexit ideologues, in the same la-la land as Donald Trump in their denial of reality, could think otherwise.
Three weeks ago, the outgoing director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, did manage to gather an astonishing 71 trade associations and professional bodies, encompassing virtually the entire British economy, to jointly insist on an ambitious trade deal – and warn of the consequences of no deal. Steve Elliott, CEO of the Chemical Industries Association, says as the leading manufacturing exporter, “we need that deal”. From Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Association: “No deal would… put at risk the choice, quality and affordability of food and drink.” David Wells, CEO of Logistics UK, says a deal is “vital to keep the trucks moving”. Mike Hawes, speaking for the motor industry, says: “Only an ambitious deal… will safeguard livelihoods and drive investment.”
There was more in the same vein from farmers, chartered accountants, the pharmaceutical industry, ceramics, the City, motor manufacturers, airports, airlines, energy, creative industries, hi-tech. Even country landowners and the security industry added their weight. I can’t remember such urgency and unanimity from every nook and cranny of British business. For their pains, it was hardly reported.
And yet, even if there is no deal by 1 January, with all the immediate chaos it will cause, there will have to be some arrangement negotiated over 2021, as the environment secretary, George Eustice, conceded to the BBC in September, arguing that the intransigent EU would by then have to come to its senses. More to the point, so would the British government. A comprehensive deal encompassing goods, services and regulatory standards in which the interests of the EU are respected and the integrity of the Good Friday agreement is upheld is an inevitability. Johnson simply lies, as John Major says, when he declares all Britain wants and needs is a Canada-style, no-frills deal. There has to be more.
On data alone, the heart of the 21st-century economy, a skinny deal is not remotely enough. The Japan-UK trade deal drops necessary privacy and protection standards for data trade, again barely reported. The EU cannot allow Britain’s financial services industries and hi-tech companies to opt out of conforming to EU data standards, otherwise Britain just becomes a global data-washing hub. Without a deal on data standards, as the international director of the Financial Conduct Authority warned last week, British financial services stand on a cliff edge. So does virtually every British business deploying data.
The No 10 court is deaf to all of this. Grassroots for Europe, a network of 200 pro-EU groups around the country, is trying, to its credit, to raise the salience at the last with its Voices for a Better Deal social media campaign, highlighting the concerns of business, finance, university, science and trade union leaders. It’s a commentary on our times that before a national emergency there is no sustained, high-profile effort to sound the tocsin. In its absence, this is the best we can do.
The Labour party, apparently, is even debating voting for Johnson’s deal to show it has left Remain behind. It would be a category error. This fiasco must be owned by Johnson and the Conservative party. Labour’s role in the years ahead will be to campaign on endless issue after issue – on data, financial standards equivalence, transport logistics, drug safety – for access, common understandings and deals, culminating ultimately in either a special association relationship with the EU or full membership. Brexit Tories and Trumpites can try to defy the tide. Truth – and with it our prosperity – demands differently.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist