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The Briefing

British consumers will suffer if Boris’s Brexit bet goes awry

by Claire Aiken

17/09/2020

Our MD Claire Aiken on the impact of Brexit and the border regime on the UK and Irish consumer, as contributed to ‘Red Box’, The Times & Sunday Times insider guide to politics.

Despite the ongoing battle with Covid–19 and the rising infection rate across the UK and its nearest neighbours, recent events have left no doubt that the Brexit behemoth is back. With businesses in Great Britain and Northern Ireland having spent the last six months focused on pandemic response, the Brexit countdown has continued to tick while we lurch seemingly from setback to setback. Companies moving goods north to south and east to west have been left in limbo, faced with a myriad of possible new regulations and tariffs. That has now been replaced with an impending cliff–edge. And yet, should the issues around the border on the island of Ireland remain unsolved, it won’t just be the border communities in Ireland and Northern Ireland who suffer. Consumers across the UK will feel it too.

Prior to the briefing of the UK Internal Market Bill, the EU and UK had seemingly been moving closer or moderating their stances on issues such as governance of the agreement and mutual recognition. However, and as we have seen played out last week, there are still serious sticking points to any deal. With the EU’s prioritisation of the level playing field in negotiations, it seems that Downing Street, as part of a sleepy awakening, has decided that the route to overcoming that is by fatally undermining the previously agreed Northern Ireland protocol. For all, but especially those on the island of Ireland, the effective implementation of the protocol appears to be in serious doubt.

The UK had not expected to provide details of how the border regime will work until the autumn. For those affected by the possibility of physical checks on agri–food goods, tariffs and exit summary declarations, that was already too late. The Trader Support Service, a lifetime ago, was welcome, but businesses have been focused on surviving the impact of Covid–19 on the economy, they have not had the capacity to effectively plan possible outcomes. Without greater clarity, the pressure on many businesses to adapt their models and account for additional costs will be too great. For the people and businesses on the ground, that is a bleak bottom line that could spark lost jobs and closed businesses.

Conversely, what those businesses and communities did not need was further uncertainty as to whether the UK was going to abide by an agreement it signed only last year. But the question they will ask themselves is whether the UK Government see’s Northern Ireland as consequential in this process. The UK government would, of course, state that Northern Ireland is absolutely integral to their approach. Accepting that, it must therefore do more to protect its economic and political future, on a secure and peaceful footing.

Northern Ireland may often seem a fairly remote and distant place, but then again, from SW1, most places probably do. Yet, unlike the ‘Red Wall’, Northern Ireland does not return any Conservative MPs and is unlikely to anytime soon. Its handful of candidates get a handful of votes, but nothing to warrant any kind serious election campaigning. However, the reach of Northern Ireland, its businesses and its produce, is not only far reaching throughout everyday life in the UK, it is truly global.

You may not realise it, but by grabbing that beefburger at a local restaurant, splashing out on that great steak from Fortnum & Mason, buying the chicken from your local supermarket or sipping a glass of Bailey’s, you’ve enjoyed some of the amazing produce Northern Ireland has to offer. Yet our exports go further. From the monitoring system in your car tyres to the performance monitoring and analysis of the Premier League’s top teams, Northern Ireland businesses are integrated at every level and sector across UK society. So, when businesses are adversely impacted and jobs are at risk, yes, it will be most acutely felt in cities like Belfast and Newry but, the impact will be felt far beyond.  

The Prime Minister’s gamble may look to be a logical gambit to some, attempting to strong–arm an opponent in trade talks, but the consequences are real. No.10 should be wary, their latest ruse could backfire with UK consumers facing the brunt. If it does, they’ll know who to blame.