With only around 10 weeks to go until our March 29 leaving date at the time of writing, my organisation, its customers and other affected businesses remain very frustrated at the apparent inability of the country’s politicians to provide certainty.
The last few weeks have been largely a case of “much ado about nothing”. We’ve had the postponement of the original “meaningful vote” in December because the withdrawal agreement would have been rejected, which would, at least, have allowed one option to be eliminated by the end of 2018.
That was followed by a five-week delay, which saw the Prime Minister visiting various EU capitals and attending the Brussels summit, in a bid to secure concessions making her deal more palatable to MPs, that yielded little. We’ve also had the distraction of an abortive attempt to topple Mrs May by some Conservative MPs, which, even if successful, would have been unlikely to change much in the Brexit picture.
Business is, rightly, usually very reluctant to intervene in politics. That’s why we at Tudor expressed no preference in the approach to the 2016 referendum for remain or leave. This also explains why we haven’t advocated a particular form of Brexit since then, other than to endorse the widespread view among companies that a “no-deal” departure would be highly undesirable for our economy.
What business does have a right to expect from politicians, at this stage, however, is a high degree of certainty, and that’s still lacking. Companies are usually capable of adapting to changing circumstances - they have to be - but they do need time to plan properly for significant alterations like our departure from the EU.
An example of a crucial area of doubt for freight forwarders like us and the customers who employ them is the time it will take to convey goods through ports after March.
At present, our membership of the EU Single Market and Customs Union means traffic to and from other member states usually flows through ports relatively freely. We certainly hope a way can be found to maintain this system after Brexit.
But if we leave without a deal in March – which would also mean no transition period, involving arrangements remaining unchanged for the following 20 months – we’d find ourselves in much more difficult circumstances.
Research earlier this year from Imperial College, London, for example, indicated if each vehicle passing through Dover was delayed by an additional two minutes, due to extra customs and regulatory checks, following a “no-deal” Brexit, tailbacks stretching up to 29 miles along the M20 would result.
Parliament has several possible ways forward - approving an amended version of the rejected withdrawal agreement, applying to join the European Economic Area, holding a new referendum, calling a General Election, asking the EU to extend the Article 50 period or cancelling Brexit altogether, for example. Whichever it deems appropriate, businesses now need to see progress. The time for political prevarication is past.