THE UK Government’s hectoring pronouncements that “time is running out” for businesses to get ready for the effects of Brexit, and that company leaders should “step up” preparations for “Australia-style arrangements” with the European Union seem pretty rich.

The crux of why they beggar belief is that businesses are being asked to spend time and money, which are in extremely short supply right now amid the coronavirus pandemic, to prepare for problems which are entirely of Conservative Brexiters’ own making. Maybe it would be better if the UK Government got its own house in some semblance of order.

Of course, the impending Brexit woe for households and businesses has loomed large for a while now, given the hidebound determination of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and even his predecessor Theresa May to leave the European single market and customs union, come what may.

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That said, businesses and households have had to wait for clarification on the exact scale and nature of the issues which they will have to deal with when the Brexit transition period runs out on December 31. What clarification there has been points to people’s worst fears being realised.

On Friday last week, in true and familiar toys-out-of-the-pram style, the message came from the UK Government that EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier might as well not bother coming to London for talks this week if the bloc was not going to change its negotiating stance. Of course, the UK Government wants the stance changed to suit its requirements.

At first glance, this looked like a dramatic development. Then it began to look a lot like desperate and amateurish bluffing, when it became clear that there were significant caveats to the message being put out from the UK side that the talks had effectively ended.

In reality, it is probably a combination of the two things. With a good dollop of playing to the gallery, such as that seen frequently as the UK Government has pandered to Brexiters and whipped up their British nationalist fervour, thrown in for good measure.

Friday’s drama was followed by a press release, published by the UK Government on Sunday, entitled: “Time is running out for businesses to prepare.”

It went on: “The Government urges business leaders to step up preparations for Australia-style arrangements from 1 January and launches ‘time is running out’ campaign.”

Of course, as most of us know by now, “Australia-style” is essentially UK Government shorthand for a no-deal Brexit, and World Trade Organisation terms of trade with the EU.

Businesses and households have plenty of reasons to be perplexed and annoyed at the UK Government’s Brexit drama.

Last autumn, Mr Johnson assured them that a free trade deal with the EU was “oven-ready”.

Yet now, as December 31 looms, we have a ramping up of the message about the likelihood of a no-deal departure.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said on Sunday that he thought the chances of a deal were now less than 50%.

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Of course, Mr Gove has long talked, in a seemingly unperturbed manner, about the possibility of a no-deal departure. Perhaps he is less perturbed than millions of households and many hundreds of thousands of businesses because he will not bear the brunt of the effects.

For many Tory Brexiters, this has been all about ideology, with others left to fret about the grim economic realities of the situation.

This ideology was evident in Mr Gove’s comments in Sunday’s press release, which was dramatic in tone as it declared shrilly that the “EU Exit Operations (XO) Cabinet committee moves to daily rhythm”.

It was difficult to disagree with Orkney and Shetland’s Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, when he said on Friday that “people are sick and tired of this Brexit melodrama from the Government”.

Mr Gove declared in the UK Government press release: “At the end of this year we are leaving the EU single market and customs union and this means there are both new challenges and new opportunities for businesses. Make no mistake, there are changes coming in just 75 days and time is running out for businesses to act.

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“It is on all of us to put in the work now so that we can embrace the new opportunities available to an independent trading nation with control of its own borders, territorial waters and laws.”

It remains difficult, to put it mildly, to see the “new opportunities”. Conservative Brexiters and other arch-Leavers promised these but, more than four years on from the June 2016 referendum in which the UK electorate (but not that in Scotland) voted to exit the EU, they remain elusive. What is not elusive is the Johnson Government’s continuing obsession about the UK’s independence. It was independent as part of the EU so this preoccupation remains bizarre and difficult to fathom.

And what should we make of Mr Gove’s “it is on all of us to put in the work now” remark?

Surely it should have been “on” this Conservative Government and predecessor Tory administrations not to get us into this entirely avoidable mess in the first place.

And it should be “on” the Government to get the finger out and park its ideology for long enough to mitigate the Brexit damage, which will inevitably be huge in any case, by sealing a comprehensive free trade deal with our long-suffering EU neighbours.

The UK Government got its technical Brexit done on January 31, before pursuing talks on the supposed oven-ready deal flagged last autumn by the Prime Minister.

Mr Carmichael said on Friday: “To go from ‘oven-ready’ to ‘no deal’ in less than nine months suggests utter incompetence from the Prime Minister and his Government.”

This is another statement with which it would be difficult to disagree.

The last thing businesses need, as they attempt to navigate their way through the grim economic fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic, is huge and wearisome Brexit-related hassle. The same obviously goes for households.

Sunday’s press release informed us that “HMRC are today also writing to 200,000 traders who trade with the EU to set out the new customs and tax rules coming into place and how to deal with them”.

It added: “This follows a clear direction from the Prime Minister that the whole UK must prepare to leave the EU on Australia-style terms based on simple principles of global free trade, after the European Council conclusions last week left us without a basis to continue trade negotiations if there was no fundamental change in the EU’s negotiating position.”

The Government proclamations on Sunday also underlined the huge changes businesses face even if a free trade agreement is concluded. The type of free trade agreement the UK has been pursuing in recent months has been an unambitious “Canada-style” arrangement. One major problem with this, as well as such a deal’s negative effect in loosening hugely the UK’s relationship with the world’s biggest free trade bloc if it were concluded, is that, as the EU has pointed out, Britain is not Canada. The UK is next to the EU, hence the bloc’s understandable requirements for a level playing field on the likes of state aid and food and other product standards.

The list of changes businesses face even if a “Canada-style” deal can be concluded is set out in Sunday’s press release as follows: “If you sell goods to the EU you must prepare for new customs procedures...If you travel to the EU for work purposes you will need to check if you need a visa or work permit and apply if necessary.

“If you employ overseas nationals you will need to prepare your business for the implementation of the new immigration system. From 1 January 2021, if you want to hire anyone from outside the UK, including from the EU, you must be a Home Office [licensed] sponsor.

“If you are a UK business or organisation that receives personal data from contacts in the EEA [European Economic Area], you may need to take extra steps to ensure that the data can continue to flow legally at the end of the transition period. If you provide services in the EU, you must ensure that your qualifications are now recognised by EU regulations to be able to practice or service clients in the EU.”

None of this sounds like what businesses need right now, amid everything else they face. And, in reality, no one needs this kind of upheaval at any time. Especially as it is for no benefit but quite the opposite, with exit from the European single market on any scenario causing major economic damage through the loss of truly frictionless trade and the end of hugely beneficial free movement of people to and from the EU.

Of course, a no-deal departure would heap chaos upon chaos and the reaction of business organisations on Friday to the UK Government’s talk about the discussions with the EU having ended was perfectly understandable.

Allie Renison, senior policy adviser at the Institute of Directors, said: “Few would doubt that getting ready for no deal in the middle of a pandemic will be a Herculean task for many businesses. Our figures show that most directors think that Covid will magnify the impact of no deal. It’s tied their hands throughout the year and put immense pressure on cash flow, and will continue to limit bandwidth in the months ahead.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “It is deeply concerning that the Prime Minister is now telling businesses to prepare for no deal with the EU. There is nothing retailers can do to insulate consumers from the impact of £3 billion of new tariffs on food in our supermarkets. Moreover, new checks and red tape that will apply from 1st January will create additional disruption in the supply of many goods that come from or through the EU.”

The Conservatives have, perhaps wrongly given their poor economic track record, traditionally been viewed as the party of business so you might think these warnings would register with Messrs Johnson, Gove et al.

Worryingly though, it seems they are too absorbed in their ideology to pay heed. Time is indeed running out – for them to wake up to, and prioritise, the realities of the Brexit situation and sort out a shambles entirely of their own making.