It is hard for most shoppers in Bridgwater’s weekly market to imagine the price rises and shortages that might be round the corner as Christmas and the new year approach.
The covered stalls in this Somerset town – known as the Brexit capital of the south-west – are piled high with keenly priced fruit, veg and cheese, much of it from Spain, France and the Netherlands. But among those buying and selling, doubts, fears and resentments about the future are growing.
There are less than three weeks to go before the pro-Leave politicians who promised that Brexit would make the UK and its people stronger and freer could well end four-and-a-half years of tortuous negotiations on a future relationship with the EU with no deal.
Such an outcome would mean tariffs, quotas and extra barriers to trade and travel, instead of open access to the continent and its single market that our EU membership allowed, all leading to near-inevitable price rises, job cuts and loss of UK economic firepower.
Over the past fortnight, more than at any other time since the Brexit referendum, people in this town and across the country have begun to confront hard truths about what ending our ties without an agreement would mean. But despite this, nobody has seemed able to halt the march towards disaster.
Last week, the chairman of Tesco warned that a no-deal Brexit could lead to rises in UK food bills of around 5%. Increasingly, there are also visible signs of what is to come. All southbound motorways now have signs overhead saying there will be extra paperwork at UK ports after 31 December, raising the prospect of severe hold-ups on our roads.
What leading Brexiters had said would be an easy, swift and reasonably painless divorce from the EU could be about to end in acrimonious failure and chaos.
Before Sunday’s deadline – which EU leaders say is the last realistic chance to avoid no deal – tensions have been rising. Saturday’s front-page headline in the Times talked of military options. “Navy to board French boats”, it said, as the Express sounded its own battle cry, declaring “Gunships to guard our fish”.
While Boris Johnson’s government and diehard Leavers may want people to rally round the flag in the UK’s final hours as members of the single market and customs union, many in the real world seem unimpressed.
“It has been really badly handled. Everything Boris said was possible has turned out not to be possible,” says Andy Tipper, a former warehouse worker, who voted to leave. “He seems to be playing games. It’s the same with Covid – one disaster after another.”
Tipper, 50, who believed Brexit would mean more money for the NHS and more job opportunities, says he wouldn’t bother to vote if the referendum were held again. “I believed what I had read – that there was an oven-ready deal and it was going to be easy. Now there’s talk of no deal at all.”
His wife, Mia, 52, who works in a school, feels misled by Johnson. “He has backtracked on everything. He’s lied all the time, to my eyes. They’ve all done it. Every single one of them since it started,” she explains. “I wish I hadn’t [voted Leave].”
Some Leave voters blame the EU for the impasse. “Obviously, they want our money, but they’re not going to get it,” says Tony Squirrell, 76, a retired army corporal and former power worker who says he is not worried by the prospect of no deal and is ready to tough it out. “We’ve managed before,” he adds. “There is a lot of scaremongering. I won’t listen to the news any more; it does my head in.”
But most are concerned by the warnings they increasingly hear. David Payne, 37, who runs the Somerset Deli, says he will have to put up his prices for the European cheeses he sells alongside local specialities if the UK crashes out. “It will impact negatively on us. Certain cheeses are going to have to go up in price,” he says, between serving customers. “We don’t know to what extent, but some have already started to go that way.”
This weekend there are Remainers and Leavers who still cling on to the faint hope that the two sides will see sense, give ground and meet in the middle. Differences over fishing waters and rules governing access to the single market must be bridgeable, they say.
But increasingly the rhetoric is that of recrimination and blame. The Tory peer and ex-governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said yesterday he did not think Johnson was a Conservative at all, so cavalier were his attitudes his country’s interests. “I think he is an English nationalist, and all the things the Conservatives used to believe in – like standing up for the union, like not attacking our institutions like the judges, like believing in international co-operation – seem to have gone out of the window,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t know where this is going to end.”
His fellow Conservative peer Lord Heseltine, another passionate Remainer, is equally excoriating. Writing in today’s Observer he says of Brexit and the prospect of no deal: “This government will be – and should be – held responsible for quite simply the worst peacetime decision of modern times. I know personally of members of the cabinet who believe this as firmly as I do. I cannot understand their silence.
“So we are where we are. Christmas is upon us and before the country goes back to work we are on our own. Sovereign, in charge, control regained. None of that creates a single job, one pound’s worth of investment, or any rise in living standards. We will have risked our trading relationship with the world’s largest market on our doorstep, which accounts for nearly half our imports and exports.”
Asked how it can have come to this, David Gauke, the anti-Brexit former cabinet minister in Theresa May’s government, says the roots of the current no-deal crisis can be traced back to Vote Leave’s unrealistic pledges to the British people in the referendum campaign of 2016.
“There were two incompatible promises which were made to the public by the Vote Leave side,” he said. “One was that there would be very little economic dislocation as a result of Brexit, with the UK retaining very good access to the EU market, and the other that sovereignty would be regained as we took back control of all our laws and our borders.”
As it has turned out, retaining access to the largest single market in the world while refusing to except the pooling of sovereignty has proved impossible. Another former cabinet minister said: “Essentially, the same tension that dogged our entire membership and drove us to Brexit has now driven us on to the rocks of no deal. We wanted the benefits of the European project and single market, but increasingly did not want to play by the rules that govern it if that meant ceding sovereignty. The logical outcome is no deal.”
Gauke says he first realised that a no-deal outcome was coming into view during May’s premiership, when the cabinet gathered in Chequers in July 2018 to hear the prime minister’s blueprint for a deal. “It was the first time collectively that the cabinet had to face up to trade-offs,” said Gauke. “Chequers was about the common rule book, saying that if we could be aligned on goods and accept EU standards, then we could go our way on services and end freedom of movement. That was her deal…”
But the compromises proved unacceptable, both to Eurosceptics in the cabinet and to the EU. The day after Chequers, David Davis resigned as Brexit secretary, then Johnson quit as foreign secretary. Neither could accept anything akin to a “common rule book”. After Johnson became prime minister and then won last December’s general election on a promise to “get Brexit done”, Gauke believes he was even more trapped to deliver pure Brexit, meaning no deal.
“Fundamentally, the people were promised the impossible, then, over time, as things dragged on, there was fury at the politicians for failing to deliver that. Now it is a case of the government delivering what Leave voters want. Boris Johnson feels compelled to deliver something so appalling that, had it been clear in 2016, the referendum would have been a landslide in favour of remaining.”
Stewart Wood, former adviser to Labour PM Gordon Brown, said: “The key moment was the Chequers speech, when Theresa May had the opportunity to define Brexit in a realistic pragmatic way, but ended up defining it as no customs union, no single market, no European Court of Justice jurisdiction, total control of our borders, and keeping unfettered access to trading with the EU. It was a hopelessly impossible combination. It defined the negotiating objective in ways that made it impossible to deliver, yet geared up a country, and especially a Conservative party, to expect the undeliverable.”
As Johnson’s government has dug in, so too has the EU side, determined not to allow a member state that has left to be seen to do so on terms that it could portray as beneficial. As one former UK ambassador put it: “The thing President Macron is most concerned about is Marine Le Pen saying: ‘Look, the Brits got a great deal from Brexit.’ That, he thinks, would be fatal.”
Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre thinktank in Brussels, says the UK always underestimated the resolve of the EU side to preserve the integrity of the single market and the union. “Part of the answer is that the UK has never understood the process, red lines and priorities of the EU, also vastly overestimating how much power they would have in the negotiations and underestimating EU unity when dealing with a third country.”
Back in Bridgwater, the Labour leader of the town council, Brian Smedley, says he was devastated by the referendum result and the way his town voted. “They were lied to and misled, but a lot of people saw Brexit as a rebellion,” he says. Even worse, with no deal now in prospect he worries for the town’s main employers. “There are masses of distribution warehouses and big hauliers – they would definitely be impacted,” he said.
Even as he spoke, politicians on both sides of the Channel were struggling to find an agreement that might help the people of Bridgwater before tonight’s deadline. But what had always seemed clear to some – that the Brexit debate was a clash of irreconcilable philosophies, fuelled by angry rhetoric and unrealisable pledges – is now becoming increasingly apparent to the country at large. And as the clock counts down, there is little sign that a solution to that clash is in sight.