'It's fearmongering': talk of coup fails to impress Brexit-backing Grays

Talk of coups and warnings about threats to democracy were given short shrift by high-street shoppers enjoying the midday sun in the Thames estuary town of Grays on Thursday.

“It’s fearmongering. I’ll tell you what’s undemocratic: not finally delivering on what the people voted for back in 2016,” said Maureen Fowler as she paused from a shoe shopping expedition in the largest town in the Essex district of Thurrock, where 72% of voters backed leave in the EU referendum.

At 11pm UK time on 31 October the UK would, by default, become a “third country” in terms of relations with the EU, with no over-arching post-Brexit plan in place, and no transition period. The UK would no longer be paying into the EU budget, nor would it hand over the £39bn divorce payment.

The UK would drop out of countless arrangements, pacts and treaties, covering everything from tariffs to the movement of people, foodstuffs, other goods and data, to numerous specific deals on things such as aviation, and policing and security. Without an overall withdrawal agreement each element would need to be agreed. In the immediate aftermath, without a deal the UK would trade with the EU on the default terms of the World Trade Organization (WTO), including tariffs on agricultural goods.

The UK government has already indicated that it will set low or no tariffs on goods coming into the country. This would lower the price of imports – making it harder for British manufacturers to compete with foreign goods. If the UK sets the tariffs to zero on goods coming in from the EU, under WTO ‘most favoured nation’ rules it must also offer the same zero tariffs to other countries.

WTO rules only cover goods – they do not apply to financial services, a significant part of the UK’s economy. Trading under WTO rules will also require border checks, which could cause delays at ports, and a severe challenge to the peace process in Ireland without alternative arrangements in place to avoid a hard border.

Some no-deal supporters have claimed that the UK can use article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) to force the EU to accept a period of up to ten years where there are no tariffs while a free trade agreement (FTA) is negotiated. However, the UK cannot invoke article 24 unilaterally – the EU would have to agree to it. In previous cases where the article has been used, the two sides had a deal in place, and it has never been used to replicate something of the scale and complexity of the EU and the UK’s trading relationship.

The director general of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, has told Prospect magazine that “in simple factual terms in this scenario, you could expect to see the application of tariffs between the UK and EU where currently there are none”.

Until some agreements are in place, a no-deal scenario will place extra overheads on UK businesses – eg the current government advice is that all drivers, including lorries and commercial vehicles, will require extra documentation to be able to drive in Europe after 31 October if there is no deal. Those arguing for a ‘managed’ no deal envisage that a range of smaller, sector-by-sector, bilateral agreements could be quickly put into place as mutual self-interest between the UK and EU to avoid introducing or to rapidly remove this kind of bureaucracy.

Martin Belam

She and her husband, Jim, were among those voters, and two years of warnings about the consequences of no deal appeared not to have dampened their fervour for leaving.

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Maureen and Jim Fowler

Maureen and Jim Fowler: ‘They’ve been trying to do to us what they did to Greece, which was basically blackmail.’ Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

Both are retired, having worked in the past in different capacities to service Ford manufacturing, which once employed tens of thousands of workers in east London. They applauded the actions of a prime minister who they felt was finally standing up to Brussels.

“They’ve been trying to do to us what they did to Greece, which was basically blackmail, although I do feel that perhaps everything wasn’t properly explained as it should have been during the referendum,” Jim said.

Like the Fowlers, Tony Fry, 50, was critical of the coverage of the prorogation of parliament by what he described as the “leftwing BBC”. He said he would have left without a deal 18 months ago and that Boris Johnson was doing the only thing that would secure Brexit.

Prorogation is the official term that marks the end of a parliamentary session. After being advised to do so by the prime minister, the Queen formally prorogues parliament. This takes the form of an announcement in the House of Lords on the Queen’s behalf. It is a speech, written by the government, which usually describes the bills that have been passed during that session and summarises what has been achieved.

It means that all work on existing legislation stops, and MPs and Lords stop sitting. Prorogation also automatically kills any bills, early day motions or questions to ministers going through parliament. 

Parliament can then be reopened a few days later with a fresh slate of legislation intentions, set out in a new Queen’s speech at the formal state opening of parliament.

“For an overweight blond bloke like myself I think he has played a blinder to be honest,” laughed Fry, a former Ukip member who was wearing a Help for Heroes T-shirt out of respect for family members who had served in the armed forces.

“Going for no deal like this isn’t ideal but it’s the only way at this stage. The country is fed up at this stage. I’m even fed up but we still want to get Brexit done.”

Tony Fry

Tony Fry: ‘For an overweight blond bloke like myself I think [Boris Johnson] has played a blinder to be honest.’ Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

Along with praise for Johnson and, to a greater extent, Nigel Farage, Fry expressed a newfound admiration for Jacob Rees-Mogg, whom he had seen on TV batting away journalists’ questions at Aberdeen airport after a visit to secure the prorogation from the Queen at Balmoral. “It’s not going to happen but I would vote for him tomorrow if I had a chance,” he said.

Rees-Mogg will not be standing in Thurrock, historically a Labour stronghold but which has been held by the Tories since 2010, but the approval of Fry and others will come as music to the ears of Downing Street political planners eager to stave off the threat of Farage’s new Brexit party as it eyes up constituencies where Ukip had been knocking at the door in the past.

Selling toy bubble-blowing guns (“£4.99 and it comes with two bottles of mixture”) from a stall halfway along the high street, Zoe Scarrott shrugged her shoulders and shook her head when asked if she shared the concerns of others elsewhere that the prorogation of parliament might be profoundly undemocratic.

“I think that they, the MPs, need to deliver what the people voted for and if he [Boris Johnson] thinks that he can do it this way then people are not really going to care,” she said.

Zoe Scarrott

Zoe Scarrott: ‘MPs need to deliver what the people voted for and if he [Boris Johnson] thinks that he can do it this way then people are not really going to care.’ Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

Like the others, the restoration of lost sovereignty was a priority but there was also a personal motivation, as she saw it, for wanting to see Brexit realised.

“My little boy is six and is extremely bright but he’s being held back because the school he goes to is one where there has been a massive influx of Romanians, Poles and other people, and the teacher’s time is being taken up with teaching their children how to speak English in the first place,” said Scarrott, who noted that most of her customers spoke in accents that appeared to be from overseas.

She was grateful for their custom but believed that the NHS, schools and other services were “overrun”, which she felt put current Westminster manoeuvring in the shade as an issue.


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