WATCHING the UK Government’s ungainly wading through an unpleasant treacle of its own making, as it has continued its negotiations with the European Union on the post-Brexit relationship, has been nothing short of excruciating.

In spite of the whole Dad’s Army or Laurel and Hardy vibe, there is nothing at all funny in the perpetually unfolding mess.

After all, the national embarrassment that this farce represents cannot be left behind when the curtain comes down on December 31 on the UK’s very valuable membership of the European single market. Quite the opposite because it is at that stage that the country will have to pay the full price for the Tory Brexit folly, which has already weighed so heavily on growth and living standards in recent years.

The Cabinet’s seeming lack of worry over a no-deal scenario must not be taken by people as a signal that this Brexit farce is just some sort of buffoonery. This is a real thing, and its effects on the economy and people’s living standards over years and decades have been made clear by a vast array of experts. Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said in 2016 that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, but the foolishness of this statement is as apparent now as it was then. The Theresa May government’s own forecasts show huge damage to the UK economy and living standards from leaving the single market, even with an average free trade deal.

It truly beggars belief that the UK Government, amid the coronavirus pandemic, has remained content well into December to leave businesses and households hanging over the precise nature of the mess the Conservatives will leave everyone with after the transition period ends on December 31.

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In fact, it seems to have ramped up the problems and the drama. We have this week seen Tory MPs vote to reinstate contentious clauses in the internal market bill which could enable Government ministers to breach international law by overriding key elements of the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU, crucially the Northern Ireland protocol. The contentious clauses in the bill have annoyed not only the EU but also US president-elect Joe Biden.

And, as the pantomime continues, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is off to Brussels this week for (the latest) last-ditch talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, after a lengthy phone call on Monday seemed to fail to produce much progress. This Brexit shambles has got all the makings of a poorly written script for an am-dram production but sadly it is a true story.

And the backdrop is as grim as it is plain. We are in the midst of an awful pandemic. Yet, even as households and businesses face what would a year ago have been inconceivable challenges, amid the tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic, the Johnson Government has remained preoccupied with pursuing its ideological Brexit.

It has apparently clung, at times desperately, to a particular interpretation of the lamentable 2016 Leave vote. This interpretation seems to be that the narrow majority expressing its preference for Brexit was pretty much universally opting for a hard exit. Even though voters were not asked about their favoured form of Brexit, and just how disruptive or damaging they would like it to be.

The Tories seem to have decided the Leave voters preferred maximum damage to the economy and living standards, or something close to this, rather than the least-bad exit.

Remaining in the single market, and the European Economic Area, with similar arrangements to Norway, would have been a far, far less-damaging form of Brexit than the narrow free trade deal the Johnson Government has been seeking with the EU. The May government’s forecasts show that to be the case.

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Yet the Conservative Brexiters at the helm have stuck doggedly to their views that the UK must leave the European single market and customs union come what may, no matter what, because that was the will of the people, and so on, and so forth.

The current Cabinet, full of Brexit enthusiasts, has refused to even countenance putting off Brexit damage by extending the transition period while we battle the pandemic.

British Chambers of Commerce put it very well, in a press release with a Monday embargo entitled “Brexit: 24 days – 24 huge unanswered business questions”.

As millions of people across Europe look forward to Christmas by opening the windows on advent calendars, the grim Brexit countdown has continued in the background as a matter of worry for UK households and businesses in already-grim times.

British Chambers declared: “With negotiations between the UK and EU once again at a decision point – and with just 24 days to go until the end of the Brexit transition period – the latest analysis by the British Chambers of Commerce shows that businesses still have insufficient official information available in 24 critical areas, undermining their ability to prepare for change on 1st January.”

It noted the “24 unanswered questions reflect fundamental aspects of business operations, including UK/EU customs checks and rules of origin”.

This underlines once again the general pointlessness of a huge UK Government advertising campaign asking businesses to prepare for Brexit.

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A starting point for anyone asking someone else to prepare for something would surely be that the party making the request has at least a reasonable awareness of the future scenario or arrangements for which people are being told to plan.

Of course, the Government does not have any such awareness. It does not know.

To say Brexit is a shambles of epic proportions does not really get across adequately the full extent of the chaotic state of affairs.

The House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee yesterday flagged potential for huge disruption after the end of the transition period, including food shortages, in the wake of an evidence session yesterday morning.

The committee’s chairman, Labour MP Darren Jones, said yesterday: “During our evidence hearing this morning, we heard of the significant challenges which businesses are facing in dealing with the impact of Covid-19 and in preparing for the end of the transition period.

“While Britain’s businesses are hoping that a Brexit deal will be reached, companies across many sectors will face disruption from 1 January. This morning we heard evidence which pointed, even in the event of a Brexit deal, to potential food shortages and price rises, and the threat of heaping significant costs onto our car industry, and also of concerns around financial services and the wider future relationship.”

The Brexit drama has increasingly dominated weekends too, as the Conservatives have run down the clock.

The British side has ensured that emotive issues, such as fisheries (which is small in an overall economic sense), have dominated the headlines around the talks. This has, of course, enabled the Conservatives to continue to play to a Brexit-supporting gallery that has lapped up the British or English nationalist sentiment.

For its part, the EU has understandably focused on the importance of a level playing field if the UK wishes tariff-free access to the world’s largest free trade bloc. This seems entirely reasonable. The UK, having chosen to leave the EU, can hardly expect to have preferential access to the single market without any obligations. There are crucial issues here, in terms of fair competition when it comes to state aid and food and other product standards, as well as big questions over how the future situation is managed as the Conservative Government stubbornly pursues its separatist agenda on Europe.

As British Chambers director-general Adam Marshall points out, the Brexit-related issues businesses are struggling with, amid the many unanswered questions, are not new. They have been raised repeatedly with this Conservative administration and the previous May government over the past four years.

Mr Marshall said: “With just weeks to go, businesses need answers, and they need them now. Posters and television adverts are no substitute for the clear, detailed and actionable information businesses require to prepare for the end of transition.

“None of the issues businesses are grappling with are new. They have all been raised repeatedly over the past four years, from tariff codes and rules of origin through to the movement of goods from GB to NI.”

Yet here we are, with less than a month to go until the UK leaves the European single market, and still Mr Johnson and his Cabinet cannot tell us what is going to happen next. Even though they chose to pursue a hard Brexit and have refused to put off the massive economic effects and huge unnecessary chaos at least for a while, continuing on their damaging path in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stating what seems obvious to many, but does not appear to have dawned on the Conservative Government given its behaviour, Mr Marshall says: “The detail and precision of UK Government guidance matters, and will make all the difference as the trading relationship between the UK and EU changes on January 1st. With the clock ticking down, the Government must do everything in its power to provide businesses with answers as they prepare to navigate a new year like no other.”

While the clock is ticking down for millions of households and so many businesses to huge effects of Brexit, from which the UK has been insulated since its technical departure from the EU on January 31 by the transition period, Mr Johnson has continued to appear alarmingly indifferent to whether a deal is done or not.

It is an attitude that seems entrenched in the ideological drive on which he and crucially his backers have embarked. And the attitude seems to go way beyond the type of posturing you sometimes see in negotiations. Of course, Mr Johnson is not alone in displaying such an attitude. He is surrounded by similarly minded individuals when it comes to this issue.

The entrenched ideology on this is perhaps best demonstrated by a tweet from Priti Patel last month, in which the Home Secretary, as almost everyone else it seemed was celebrating good news on the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, declared: “After many years of campaigning, I am delighted the Immigration Bill which will end free movement on 31st December has today passed through Parliament. We are delivering on the will of the British people.”

It is worth setting this ideological remark against the straightforward, matter-of-fact pleas from British Chambers on what Brexit will mean for businesses and the economy, and of course, by natural extension, what it will mean for living standards.

And then ask yourself, or remind yourself, where the priorities of this hapless Tory Government really lie.