The queues for petrol in the UK are perhaps the most important post-Brexit moment for Boris Johnson and for those who followed his advice and voted to leave the European Union.
In 2016, Boris Johnson’s Leave campaign assured people that leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc will have no disadvantages, and will only bring advantages to the British. Emboldened by these promises, they voted to leave the EU.
Five years later, after a no-deal departure (the so-called “deal” that Boris Johnson supposedly “negotiated” does not amount to a trade agreement of any substance), the negative consequences are beginning to show.
A shortage of lorry drivers is what has caused the current fuel crisis, but the root cause is Boris Johnson’s unwillingness to listen to people who for years have warned about the danger of shortages, labelling them fearmongers.
Unfortunately, what the Leave campaign promoters used to call “project fear” is turning out to be daily life as we now know it in the UK.
Not just fuel, but other goods have been sporadically disappearing from supermarkets, in an eerie reminder of a warning made in 2017 by the former head of grocery retailer Sainsbury’s, Justin King, that Brexit will lead to higher prices and less choice for consumers.
Recently, King warned again that in two years’ time, people will realise that Brexit “was bigger news than Covid” because there are issues with the UK labour force that are “now structural and long-term, with a real lack of political will to sort it.”
In other words, the jobs of the British weren’t stolen from them; they simply had better options than to do jobs that are essential for the smooth running of the economy, but not as well paid or as glamorous as they would want them to be.
Raising salaries for these jobs would of course entice more people to do them, but this will push up in inflation on a backdrop of prices already surging due to supply constraints.
Also, creating better working conditions for people in low-paid occupations has not been high on the agenda of the Tories, who seem inclined to strip workers of rights and encourage “private initiatives” such as zero-hour contracts and gig work.
King may prove just as right in 2021 as he was in 2017. Boris Johnson’s government has shown that it cares more about appearing tough on immigration than about resolving an acute problem that threatens the supply of vital goods and services in the country.
Executives in the oil industry say there is plenty of petrol in the UK, but not enough drivers to transport it from the refineries to the retailers. The same is true for other goods, which are waiting in various warehouses to be loaded on lorries and delivered to supermarkets and shops.
On top of 40,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver tests that were cancelled in the UK during the Covid lockdowns, 20,000 HGV drivers from Europe went back home and never returned.
Allowing 5000 temporary work visas for European HGV drivers will not do much to alleviate the issue. Already, drivers from the EU have said they would not come for such a short time (the visas run out a day before Christmas).
The shortages of goods, including some food, as well as problems in public services such as the NHS and care sector are likely to get worse, not better, and this is down mostly to Brexit.
There are reports of fruit and vegetables rotting in the field because there are insufficient pickers, while video clips of small and medium-sized business owners squarely blaming Brexit for their woes abound on small independent YouTube video channel BylineTV but are nowhere to be seen on the taxpayer-funded BBC.
The newspapers warn of a “winter of discontent”. Soon, people in the UK could realise that immigration, far from being the main problem in their lives, was the solution to a multitude of problems.
As long as Boris Johnson’s government buries its head in the sand and refuses to see the damage that Brexit is doing, things will most probably get worse.