I almost spat out my gloriously British manufactured Weetabix this morning. Not even Piers Morgan can be blamed. Nor Meghan Markle. Nope, the latest head swivel moment from the British establishment was provided by Lord Frost of Allenton, chief Brexit negotiator and current cabinet office minister for EU-UK relations and still……..Brexit. The gift that keeps on giving, unless you are a British business owner.
Check out the latest UK trade figures for January from the Office for National Statistics (ONS):
• UK exports to the EU collapsed by 40.7% in January, the first post-Brexit month.
• EU imports to the UK fared slightly better, dropping just the 21.6%.
• Standout calamity areas for exports were Food & Live Animals (-54%), Beverages & Tobacco(-40%), Chemicals (-41%) and Machinery (-34%).
• Let’s not forget those fish, Nigel. Exports of Fish & Shellfish imploded by 83%.
• Meat and Dairy exports fell by 59% and 50% respectively. For context, the UK food industry is far bigger than any of the usual high profile export sectors – Autos and Aerospace – touted as Brexit negotiation ‘leverage’.
• Clothing and Footwear exports were down 68% and 76%. Cool Britannia.
• For further context, the overall value of UK exports to the EU were the lowest since 1997. An almost 25 year re-wind.
• Finally, if one were looking for causation explainers bear in mind that UK exports outside the EU actually increased by 1.7%. Imports from non-EU countries dropped by 12.7%.
Clearly, there has been a trade shock. It could be temporary but like any problem it is important to identify the actual problem if one plans to sort it. Step forward Lord Frost with some reassuring words and an insistence that the Brexit trade parrot is not dead…..
Lord Frost, as always with Brexiteers’ keen eye for the facts, requests that “caution should be applied when interpreting these statistics”. This should be the moment to take the anti-nausea tablets to save my Weetabix and most of British trade but too late, the “Frostie facts” have been casually spewed onto Twitter. The trade expert in the cabinet wants us to note “evidence of stockpiling late last year” removing the need to move goods in January. Hmmmm…… just a wild guess here, but wouldn’t the food, fish and live animals(even parrots) be a little dead by January?
Next up, was the trusty Covid-19 deflection tactic and Lord Frost’s expert analysis of “Covid lockdowns across Europe bringing reduced demand for goods overall”. Michael Palin couldn’t have said it better. But reality bites again when one checks the ONS data and sees with the naked eye that it’s only trade with the EU which is dead or dying. Yep, UK exports to non-EU destinations actually increased. How awkward is that…? Best to move on and hint at trade disruption as a temporary thing.
Sure enough, Lord Frost wants business owners and employees to know that “the latest information indicates that overall freight volumes between the UK and EU have been back to their normal levels for over a month now”. Excellent news until you realise Lord Frost is counting trucks. The most basic of business surveys will tell you that EU goods are coming into the UK but that the trucks are returning to Europe empty.
Brexiteers might argue to a Python audience that UK trade is merely “stunned”. However, the latest unilateral attempts by the Johnson government to extend grace periods for trade with the EU reveal a more panicked longer-term reality. Prepare for more denial and cage banging but the data is rather damning. Indeed, the Guardian’s Philip Inman has gone full John Cleese mode and put it rather well….
“As an act of self-sabotage, Boris Johnson’s willingness to negotiate the thinnest of Brexit deals was always going to rank alongside the greatest economic debacles of the past century”