The Guardian view on Brexit trade talks: folly and distraction | Editorial | Opinion

Back in January, the nation was briefly distracted by proposals that Big Ben should chime to mark Britain’s formal exit from the European Union at the end of the month. A slightly ludicrous debate ensued, given a higher profile than it deserved by Boris Johnson’s invitation to the public to “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong”. That episode now seems to belong to another age. But the government’s focus at that time on the politics of Brexit was unrelenting. Following the signing of the EU withdrawal bill on 24 January, Downing Street’s attention turned to a reshuffle which saw the chancellor, Sajid Javid, replaced by Rishi Sunak. A month later, Mr Sunak delivered a highly expansionary budget designed to woo leave voters in the so-called “red wall” seats in the Midlands and the north.

It is a now notorious matter of record that during this period, the prime minister missed five coronavirus Cobra meetings. When definitive accounts are written of this crisis and the government’s handling of it, the cognitive distraction that Brexit represented will loom large in accounts of why Downing Street was slow to grasp the scale of the threat the country faced from Covid-19.

It is regrettable then, that in the midst of the crisis, the government is allowing the same ideological zeal to cloud its judgment again. This week, via video, British officials are holding delayed trade talks with their EU counterparts – the first since the beginning of March. Brussels is open, given the extraordinary circumstances, to extending the deadline for agreement on a future relationship. But Downing Street insists that, pandemic or no pandemic, deal or no deal, the Brexit transition period will end on 31 December.

“Get Brexit Done” served Mr Johnson well as an election slogan. But bullish dogmas are inappropriate in the context of a public health crisis which has torn up businesses by the roots and laid waste the economic landscape. The Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that GDP could fall by as much as 35% during a three-month lockdown, with 2.1 million people losing their jobs. The absence of a Covid-19 vaccine means that any eventual recovery will be shadowed by the dreadful possibility of a second wave of infections. Given this backdrop, even a short-term hit to the economy, as a result of new trade restrictions, would come at the worst possible moment. But the principal objection to proceeding as if this epidemic had not happened is a basic matter of human resources.

For the foreseeable future, Whitehall’s exclusive focus must be on navigating a path through and out of lockdown. To attempt simultaneously to redraw Britain’s relationship with its main trading partners – themselves overwhelmingly preoccupied with the pandemic – is wilfully unrealistic. As the British Chambers of Commerce has pointed out, businesses risk being placed in an impossible position. Companies have been forced to shut down production and furlough staff. They face a future in which a new normal, complete with physical distancing requirements and subject to revision, will have to be devised for the economy. The notion that firms can also cope with new customs arrangements with the EU is for the birds. Businesses will need breathing space and stability.

It may be the case that some members of the government have calculated that a “clean break” with the EU can be more easily effected in the context of the massive economic dislocation caused by Covid-19. If that is so, they should think again. To plough on needlessly with a timetable that has clearly been overwhelmed by events would be feckless and irresponsible.

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