David Cameron's confidence in the outcome of the vote proved misplaced © PA
David Cameron's confidence in the outcome of the vote proved misplaced © PA

Brexit countdown: Time for procurement to get ready

4 April 2018

"Preparing for Brexit is like training for a marathon... you have to start doing some runs now". In a year, the UK starts transitioning out of the EU – that much is agreed. And while much uncertainty remains, there is procurement work that can, and is, being done now. 

In the latest issue of SM, we answer some of the key questions (see below). But first, some context...

Sir Martin Donnelly, former permanent international secretary at the Department of Trade, likened leaving the EU to “swapping a three course meal for a packet of crisps”. Prime minister Theresa May, European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas, and Chancellor Angela Merkel have expressed differing views on which court the Brexit ball is in – May says the EU’s, Schinas says the UK’s, and Merkel says both. Meanwhile, Dover MP Charlie Elphicke fears a Brexit transition where, as the Eagles put it: “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave…”

Analogies can be a useful means of political communication – a way of saying ‘this complex, unusual thing is actually just like this simple, familiar thing’ – but when it comes to Brexit, they are in danger of replacing facts. This is not entirely accidental. You could interpret the Leave vote as a blistering defeat for big data, a moment when things that cannot be counted (people’s subjective emotions) triumphed over the things that can be counted (the empirical data deployed by the advocates of globalisation). Arron Banks, Leave EU’s multimillionaire backer, admitted as much, saying: “Facts don’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally.” Remainers have belatedly learned that lesson, fighting, as The Economist wryly noted, a more effective campaign to stay in the EU after the referendum than they did before.

This is not the first time Britain has tried to “take back control”. In the 1530s, Henry VIII ordered his own Brexit – founding his own church after falling foul of the Roman Catholic Church’s opaque marital regulations. In 286AD, Dutch mariner M Mausaeus Carausius proclaimed himself emperor of an independent Britain. The Roman Empire took back control within seven years, but Carausius briefly inspired Britons with the Nigel Farage-esque slogan “Restitutor Britannia”.

Neither Henry VIII nor Carausius knew where their Brexits would lead – and nor, at this moment, do we. In July 2016, novelist James Meek argued in the London Review of Books that the referendum hadn’t really settled anything: “Will Britain continue to have high levels of immigration or not? We don’t know. Will house prices fall, rise or stay the same? Don’t know. Will Britain continue to be part of the European free trade zone? No idea. Will there be a bonfire of EU environmental regulations? Might be. Might not. Find out some day. Will Scotland stay in the UK, will Ulster, will the British fishing fleet grow or shrink, will foreign investment in Britain collapse or boom, will the City dwindle or thrive, will we ever actually leave the EU? We don’t know.”

One year before the official Brexit deadline, Meek’s questions remain unanswered. And so do many others – most notably, what happens if the devolved Welsh and Scottish assembly vote against a withdrawal bill. In the slightly alarming absence of compelling evidence that sufficient progress towards Brexit is being made – a malaise symbolised by the resurgence of the Irish border issue – we can only make what we will of a plethora of prophecies from special interest groups.

The transition agreement avoids a hard Brexit – the UK is not, at the moment, likely to tell the EU where it can stuff the single market – which could be a disappointment for Scottish fishermen, antiques dealers and manufacturers but a blessing for horse racing, film-makers (no “Lights! Camera! Inaction!”), universities and British science.

Yet there is still a long and winding road ahead to Brexit and there is a worry that the uncertainty is paralysing Theresa May’s government which, The Times noted, has called significantly fewer votes in the House of Commons – 127 at the last count – than in the comparable period for any of the last five administrations.

As prime minister, May has attracted much of the flak for this. Posterity may judge her negotiating course – trying to sail down the middle but tacking one way or the other as circumstances dictate – more kindly than the media’s outrage might suggest. But Europe has bedevilled many past prime ministers.

In 1962, Harold Macmillan’s attempt to enter the EU was stymied by General de Gaulle’s “Non”. In 1973, Edward Heath led Britain in, but sowed the seeds of future discontent by equivocating about the likelihood of future monetary and political union. Most disastrously of all, in 2013, David Cameron promised a referendum he hoped never to hold and then, forced to deliver, blithely assured other European leaders not to worry about the outcome because he was a “winner”.

The British political system has wrestled with the nature of the UK’s relationship with Europe for 56 years. It now has a year until transition begins – which presents us with a few questions:

When will we know what to do?

What can procurement do right now?

How do we stop hour-long queues at Dover?

What does it mean for supply chains?

How do you deal with currency volatility?

What will happen to British farming?

What does it mean for the public sector?

Could procurement negotiate it better?

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