Opinion: The government must pay the farmers and fishers struggling with its bad Brexit deal

There is little doubt what is currently the angriest programme on air: Radio 4’s Farming Today.

Every morning, enraged farmers and despairing fishers fume as their food rots in lorries and warehouses, unable to export to Europe or even Northern Ireland because of Brexit. Fishing boats lie idle. Meat cannot be moved. The talk is of animal product bans, faulty vet certificates, 50-page customs forms and impossible bureaucracy.


Engineering and manufacturing body Make UK says six out of 10 trading companies now suffer “significant border disruption”. Northern Irish eels suddenly can’t be sold in London. More than 100,000 British pigs are stranded. Families and firms slide towards bankruptcy.


Where now the promised frictionless Brexit?

Tut-tut says the occasional government minister, with talk of teething troubles or mere bumps in the road. Liz Truss, the trade secretary, says: “We haven’t seen those predictions of Armageddon come true.” Cue explosions of frustration and anger from the frontline of the food, retail and haulage industries. Why were we never warned?


The difference between an act of God and an act of government is a fine one. The government is now compensating individuals and firms extensively for its enforced lockdown of the economy due to coronavirus. The lockdown is rightly seen as an act of policy, even if occasioned by an act of God. The government should pay.


To the best of my knowledge, God was not involved in Brexit. In particular, implementing it by leaving the customs union was specifically a choice of Boris Johnson and his government.


Politicians maintain that it was the public who, as Tory MP Neil Parish told the BBC, “voted to come out of the single market and customs union”. It did not. It voted to come out of the EU and was never asked if it wanted also to leave the customs union, let alone told what leaving might mean. It was told a lie – that leaving the customs union would be “frictionless”. Other countries such as Norway are outside the EU but enjoy free trade within the customs union.


The UK may have tariff-free trade but it is not frictionless.

How much of the current trauma is temporary remains to be seen, but that is not an issue. Leaving the customs union – not to mention other features of the single market – was an ideological whim. The victims of this whim manifestly deserve compensation every bit as much as those suffering from lockdown: both are bearing a crippling personal cost for a benefit, real or supposed, to the nation as a whole.


In the case of Brexit, the damage is plainly the result of a political decision and its incompetent implementation. It is a massive regulatory failure. As ministers claim the decision to leave the customs union is greatly to the benefit of all, then all should pay its losers.


The same principle applies to the 700,000 hapless residents of dangerous flats, still stuck in buildings with flammable cladding almost four years after the Grenfell Tower fire. They too are the innocent victims of a state policy in favour of tower blocks, and a state failure to subsequently inspect and regulate their construction.


If a car design is unsafe, its makers and inspectors are responsible, not its users. The same applies to a flat, even if the eventual cost is enormous. Any dispute should be between a tower’s owners, constructors and regulators, not its occupants.


As an urgent first response, the state should cover all residents’ insurance costs. This is not a case of negligent buyers but of bad government. Be it lockdown, the fallout from the Brexit trade deal or unsafe apartment blocks, the government should pay.


About the Author: Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist


First published in The Guardian