Around this time of year, leaders in western Europe deliver their Christmas messages to their citizens. Here is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, full of his characteristic optimism: “Today is our chance to put the uncertainty to bed so people can get on with their lives. Just imagine how wonderful it will be to settle down to a turkey dinner this Christmas with Brexit decided.”
But – as usual for Mr Johnson – there is a catch. These words are not from this year's Christmas message. They are from last December. And you will not be shocked to learn that last year's promises still have not been fulfilled, despite Mr Johnson's repeated announcements that he had an "oven-ready deal" to "get Brexit done". This Christmas there is still no sign, beyond the empty promises, of putting the Brexit "uncertainty to bed so people can get on with their lives". Quite the reverse.
I am writing this on the Kent coast, the lovely county called "the Garden of England". But Kent nowadays is "the Lorry Park of England". If you are unwise enough to try to drive to the key port of Dover, as a friend has just done, you will find roads into the town blocked. There are queues of lorries for kilometres up to the Eurostar train terminal at Folkestone, a port town on the English Channel, and then further up the M2 motorway towards London.
Previously in this column, I have mentioned expert predictions that if every one of the thousands of lorries entering Dover every day were to be held up by just one minute each due to Brexit bureaucracy and extra paperwork, the queues would stretch for kilometres. It is happening now. Desperate lorry drivers are waiting to cross the vital link between England and France. The Port of Calais on the other side of the channel is also experiencing serious delays – and the real Brexit crunch still has not happened.
At 11pm (UK time) on December 31, Britain’s transitional period of maintaining broadly the rules and regulations of the EU will run out. Without a deal, no one knows what will happen next. But what is already happening is worrying enough.
Lorry drivers have been told – and I am not making this up – that if they try to enter Britain in January with a beef or cheese sandwich or other meat and dairy products, they will be in breach of new regulations. The food will be confiscated. Personal imports of products of plant or animal origin will be banned. Tourists will face similar restrictions. The shopping trips that many English people have become accustomed to – taking the ferry to France, having lunch in Calais or Boulogne, and then filling the car with excellent French cheeses and other foodstuffs – simply will be off the menu.
Imagine, therefore, the plight of lorry drivers. You are stuck in long queues on a cheerless motorway trying to get to Dover, and inevitably you will need to attend to normal bodily functions, including going to toilet. The Johnson government claimed that it would put portable toilets in place. They also claimed that they would complete a massive lorry park near Ashford in Kent. And they further claimed that they would hire and train an extra 50,000 – (50,000!) – customs officers.
But four-and-a-half years after the Brexit vote, the claims and promises seldom make it into reality. The lorry park isn’t finished. The 50,000 new customs officers do not exist, and I will not trouble you further with the toilets.
Lorry drivers, not surprisingly, are furious. If you have just driven halfway across Europe and you meet a customs official who tries to take your beef sandwich lunch, citing the new rules, you may not immediately be happy to co-operate. Even the most co-operative lorry driver will be stuck answering questions and filling out forms from over-worked and harassed customs officials. And lorry drivers are just the first wave of Brexit casualties. The same new bureaucracy will affect tourists, travellers, British importers and exporters. We have been instructed by the government “to prepare for Brexit”, but we still do not know what Brexit actually means.
All this confusion comes as Europe is struggling with another coronavirus upsurge. And as if things could not get much worse, they have. France has blocked lorry movements from the UK for 48 hours as a result of the new Covid-19 strain.
The irritable mood this Christmas has, therefore, also brought about a change in tone. For years British newspaper writers have been reluctant to call politicians liars. Instead traditionally they used euphemisms like “telling fibs". Not any more.
In her end-of-year column in The Guardian newspaper, columnist Marina Hyde this week described Mr Johnson as "the nation's leading liar". Such a statement in a heavyweight newspaper about any previous prime minister – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May – would have been unthinkable. Calling any of these leaders a liar would have provoked outrage and perhaps even resulted in a legal challenge as defamation.
At Christmas 2020, however, British people have become so irritated by repeated false promises that when Hyde writes of our Prime Minister’s “full spectrum mendacity", readers just shrug and move on – unlike, of course, British lorry drivers, who appear not to be moving anywhere any time soon.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National