Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru leader at Westminster
Four months from today, the Brexit transition period will have formally expired. With no sign of a deal on the horizon, it’s time for Boris Johnson to take responsibility for his failures and to do everything in his power to prevent the impending crash.
Accountability is a concept absent from current political culture in Westminster, an absence personified in a Prime Minister more focused on hitting headlines than taking responsibility. From undermining public health laws during a pandemic in order to protect his advisor, to blaming the English A-level fiasco on civil servants, Boris Johnson has developed a reputation as a Prime Minister ready to swivel the finger of blame onto a hapless scapegoat.
A refusal to take responsibility is not a new phenomenon in Westminster politics, of course. In 2016, the Vote Leave campaign, of which Boris Johnson was a key figurehead, peddled a string of lies including that Turkey was joining the EU, that leaving the EU would not threaten our place in the single market and most infamously, that Brexit would lead to an extra £350m a week for the NHS.
The UK Statistics Authority said that the latter was a “clear misuse of official statistics”, but unsurprisingly, no one was held accountable for this lie or any other.
Four years of Brexit reality and a global pandemic later, the time for bluster and brinkmanship is over. A trade deal with the EU will be the single most important and most impactful trade agreement ever for Wales, yet four months before it is due to enter into force, we know nothing of its content.
Once touted as “the easiest in human history”, negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal have – unsurprisingly – proven to be rather more problematic than promised. Talks have been at a standstill for months, with frustration mounting in EU capitals at the UK’s refusal to compromise.
A deal was supposed to have been sealed by now, with Johnson having set his own end-of-July deadline. But his deadline came not with a new offering or a renewed mandate, but with intensified pressure on the EU to drop fundamental red lines it has clearly communicated since the beginning of the Brexit process in 2016. This is a government who will wring the last drop out of blaming the EU for their own errors.
The main obstacle is Johnson’s insistence that the UK should not be obliged to uphold rules on state aid or to keep high levels of social and environmental protections. This despite Johnson himself having promised to do just that in the Political Declaration he signed as part of his so-called ‘oven ready deal’. That turned out to be yet another half-baked promise, broken without shame or apology.
Once again, there will be no repercussions for the Prime Minister for his dishonest dissembling.
It is difficult to see how crashing out of the Single Market and Customs Union will be anything but catastrophic for Wales. With our higher level of dependence on EU trade compared to other parts of the UK, and the vulnerability of our economy following years of Tory austerity and Labour mismanagement, Wales was always likely to be particularly exposed to the economic downside risks of leaving the EU.
The pandemic has added another element altogether. An economy plunged into the deepest recession since records began – the worst of any G7 state – will hardly be able to cope with additional disruption caused by a Brexit crash. Millions face unemployment as the furlough scheme winds down, with some predictions suggesting unemployment could rise to 10% across the UK by this winter.
This uncertainty was avoidable, with the opportunity for an extension to the transition written into the Withdrawal Agreement. Plaid Cymru led calls in Westminster, tabling a motion calling for an extension to the transition on 13 March, winning the support of a cross-party cohort of MPs united in their belief that ideology should be put aside in order to deal with the pandemic. Instead, the Conservatives doubled down, risking livelihoods in the process.
Swivelling the focus of his blame from the EU to Covid-19, Johnson may well hope that the impact of the pandemic will mask the economic crisis caused by a no-deal Brexit. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that the responsibility for the looming crisis lies with those who built its foundations.
The challenges ahead will be the result of deliberate political choices, not economic inevitability, and the Prime Minister and his Cabinet must be held accountable.