We must extend transition beyond 31 Dec 2020

By Naomi Smith, Best for Britain CEO
Follow on Twitter at @Pimlicat

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.

The words of Churchill, of course; and, in our lifetimes, they have never been more appropriate.
What is required at the moment is that every one of us is focused on controlling the spread of Covid-19, that scientists are focused on combatting the virus, and that governments the world over are focused on supporting this battle and keeping the global economy functioning.
That dual role for governments is problematic – the measures being taken to deal with the coronavirus come at a huge economic price. Failing to deal with the virus, of course, comes with its own price, least-of all for the economy.
In reality, our political leaders are faced with Hobson’s choice, which is to say no choice at all.

Sacrifice for the national good

That which distracts from the coronavirus effort, that which can make things worse, that which is not for the greater good, all that must be put aside.
On an individual level, that means sacrificing personal freedoms and doing what is necessary to help society as a whole. On a national level, it means an unprecedented raft of measures that cut risks, support our heroic health service, and eliminate anything that could cause further damage.
Nothing, but nothing, is sacred in such circumstances. Sacrifices are the norm, not the exception.
Any actions which could make the situation worse must be halted for now, whether that means calling a halt to festivals, sporting events and pub gatherings to protect public health, or applying the handbrake to policies which would put additional pressure on our shell-shocked economy.
Chief among such policies for our island nation is, of course, the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Double whammy: Covid-19 & No Deal Brexit 

I say ongoing but, with senior negotiators testing positive for Covid-19 and the ability of others to conduct meaningful talks curtailed, while senior civil servants are transferred from EU withdrawal planning to coronavirus planning, the truth is that, in practical terms, negotiating trading relationships is on hold.
My organisation, Best for Britain, has looked at local contingency plans in significant detail over the last three years. Many local authorities were, as the Government said, confident they could weather the impact of a hard Brexit – but feared a double whammy.
Now we face just that and I really worry they won’t be able to sustain all the vital services Britons rely on.
Fighting on two major fronts when we do not have to would be, at best, ill-advised. At worst, as Lord Cooper says, it could amount to criminal stupidity.
Of course, the politics of asking for an extension to the transition period have, until now, been understandably tricky. But that is changing.

Two thirds of people agree

While the new Labour leader will struggle to knock coronavirus off the front pages when elected on Saturday, the government has majority support for any measure the public thinks will contain or suppress coronavirus.

This doesn’t exclude issues relating to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. A Focaldata poll we ran last week with our partners at HOPE not hate found that 65 per cent of people in the UK, including 55 per cent of those who voted Conservative at the last election, want the government to seek membership of the EU’s Early Warning and Response System for medical emergencies.

And the same poll revealed that two-thirds (64%) of people now favour extending the transition period. Extension was supported by all age groups, social grades and UK regions (up to 78% for Scotland).

While this was broken down into predictable support from those who voted for Labour (84%) and the Lib Dems (83%) at the last election, the first statement was also supported by nearly half of those who voted Conservative (44%) and a fifth of Brexit Party voters (19%).

An extension was supported by more than 50 per cent of people across all age groups, with 18-24 year olds the most supportive (78%) and 65+ year olds the least supportive (although still 52%) – meaning there is no generational divide in the country over an extension request.

Focus on the pandemic, not arbitrary deadlines

For most people, it’s clear that we don’t have the time to split our focus. In a world coming to grips with the physical and economic chaos of a pandemic, people are far less interested in completing a trade deal by an arbitrary date than they are about keeping their families safe and healthy.

We are in no position to look at what happens post-transition. In fact, come December 31st, we may well still be in the midst of the coronavirus battle – if warnings that a second wave of the virus is likely prove to be well founded.
Exiting the transition period on 31 December, with at best a skin and bones free trade agreement, would be deeply irresponsible.
Every business on the planet is being affected in some way by Covid-19, and the economic pressures are intense and potentially catastrophic. Balance sheets for some are already starting to resemble horror novels and, on a macro scale, GDP figures are  worrying to say the least.

Conservatives starting to call for extension

A January exit would take what is the world’s worst-case scenario in living memory and, somehow, perversely, make it even worse for Britain.
It is not realistic to expect out political leaders or our business leaders to be able to cope with two such challenges. And neither is it desirable.
At Best for Britain, we have been encouraged by reports that an extension is being considered – even if the public line is still wedded to 31 December 2020. Indeed, the centre right European People’s Party of which the Conservative used to be a member, came out earlier this week calling for No 10 to “do the responsible thing” and make the request.

Once, an extension would have been viewed as a brave political choice, whereas now, it would be a sign of a government capable of adapting to rapidly-changing external circumstances.

We must work with the world

To return to Churchill’s words, our leaders must not only do their best, they must do what is required.
That means extending the transition period before 30 June (the deadline for the UK making a request), taking a sensible and pragmatic view of how Brexit fits into the coronavirus story, and acting in the best interests of the country and, indeed, the world.

This would in no way represent a climb-down or a surrender by ministers; rather, it would demonstrate the vision and courage necessary to help us all through the difficult years that lie ahead.
Churchill also said: ‘Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.’
Let’s do the right thing. Let’s allow our leaders to concentrate on protecting that asset, without distraction. And let’s scrub that December deadline, and give our leaders time to do what must be done.

Naomi Smith
CEO, Best for Britain

Follow me on Twitter at @Pimlicat