Parliamentary ‘Constipation’: Toilet Paper, Brexit Apocalypse and the Kalends or Ides of April

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(Pixabay/ CCO/ Alexas_Fotos)

I had a dream last night. I awoke on the Kalends or perhaps the Ides of April to a Brexit Apocalypse. The UK Government had failed to persuade Parliament to approve the withdrawal deal and the UK had left the EU without the benefits of a negotiated and agreed deal. There is much confusion here but remember that this is a dream. I might have woken on the 1 April, or the Kalends of April, or the Ides of April, or the 15th April, or perhaps this was the 30 March 2019. In any case, this was a dream of a Brexit Apocalypse or an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale. The was the reality of Project Fear.

Today, the BBC published a list of 10 ways that you could be affected by a no-deal Brexit. This is another part of a Project Fear scenario. My dream could include all these impacts:

  • Alterations in the content of my shopping basket with food shortages.
  • The need to take extra measures when travelling to EU countries.
  • Medication might not be available or be more expensive.
  • UK nationals living in other EU states might need to take extra measures.
  • EU citizens living in the UK requirement to apply for settled status.
  • Importing goods might be more expensive.
  • House prices could be affected.
  • Mobile phone roaming changes might be affected.
  • Some ports and motorways could experience extra delays.
  • UK students studying in the EU and EU students studying in the UK face a period of uncertainty.

This is an odd list, and it is also a list that is packed full of words like ‘could’ and ‘might’ rather than ‘can’ and ‘will’. All this indicates that there is considerable uncertainty about the impacts of a no deal Brexit. Some of these impacts are welcome. Any reduction in house price inflation should be welcomed and any rebalance from imported to local food, with reductions in food miles, should also be welcomed.

(Pixabay/ CCO/ jbarsky0)

I have been entertained by stories of Brexit stockpiling. One of my research interests is in understanding adaptation strategies and stockpiling represents an interesting strategy. The website Quartz has analysed more than 3,000 Mumsnet posts about Brexit stockpiling to identify seven types of Brexit preppers. These include:

  1. Proper prepping 101 – stockpiling pasta, toilet rolls and squash.
  2. Pharmaceutical fears – Prescription medication including some people skipping prescription medication to stockpile it.
  3. Costly children – pre-emptively buying clothing.
  4. Fuelling up.
  5. Spice up your life – a concern that Brexit will result in boring meals.
  6. Posh pile – stockpiling wine.
  7. Cash cache – transferring pounds to US dollars or Euros.

A survey by Premium Credit, a finance company, identified that 17% of people had begun to stockpile in the event of Brexit. This analysis estimated that 2.44 million people had spent more than £500 on Brexit stockpiling and one in five (19%) had spent over £1,000.

Brexit stockpiling is an individual and household strategy. The list of stockpiled goods reflects middle-class lifestyles and insecurities. I had not expected toilet paper to play such an important role in Brexit adaptation strategies. A German manufacturer of toilet rolls has stockpiled 3.5 million toilet and kitchen rolls in the UK to avoid any potential Customs delays.. This company has also chartered ships to transport toilet and kitchen rolls from a supplier in Naples to Swansea to avoid any potential delays experienced by trucks using the Calais-Dover route.

(Pixabay/ CCO/ Gellinger)

I remember another dream, but this time I was dreaming in 1999 of waking on 1 January 2000 to the impacts of the Millennium bug or Y2K bug. In this dream, infrastructure structure services – water, electivity, gas, telecommunications – were disrupted and banking services were unavailable. The reality of the Millennium bug was one based on very minor impacts based on technological glitches. Like the Millennium Bug, a no deal Brexit, with proper planning, would have no major consequences. Here we must differentiate between immediate impacts versus medium- to longer-term impacts. Much of the media and political debate has focussed on immediate impacts and ignored adaptation strategies that will come in to play that will dampen any longer-term Brexit impacts.

I want to make two points about Brexit. First, the primary and most serious impact of Brexit is not economic, but reflects a constitutional crisis, or a challenge to the effective functioning of the UK democratic process. On the one hand, one can argue that the Parliamentary process has been effective as debate has tried to develop effective solutions. But, there are many problems here including the failure to plan and implement strategies to cope with any potential no-deal scenario. On the other hand, one can argue that the constitutional crisis reflects the failure of Members of Parliament (MPs) to represent their constituents, Parliament and their political party. MPs have responsibilities to three main groups – their constituents, Parliament and their political party. For Brexit, too many MPs are conflating their own views with that of these three main groups. My own view on Brexit and Parliament is that what has been occurring is best described as ‘Parliamentary Constipation’ or an inability to make and pass Parliamentary motions that protect the interests of constituents.

Second, we need to begin to diagnose the causes of Parliamentary Constipation. Three causes can be identified immediately. First, is the relative inactivity of the British Government to plan for a no deal Brexit. Too many MPs have no confidence in this country’s ability to plan for this scenario. This reflects failure on the part of each individual MP who has adopted this position and cross-party failure. Second, one contributor to Parliamentary Constipation is the lobbying of incumbent firms, including trade associations, that have developed operations and business models based on the status quo. A no change scenario is in their interests. Here it is important to distinguish between those firms (financial services/services) that are experiencing a no deal Brexit irrespective of whether the withdrawal agreement is signed or not and firms that will benefit. Third, it is in the interests of citizens who want the UK to remain in the EU and of the EU to ensure that any benefits that might accrue to the UK from Brexit are severely curtailed. This will act as a deterrent to any other EU member state considering withdrawal from the EU, but also facilitate the re-entry of the UK in to the EU fold at some future date.

(Pixabay/ CCO/ derwiki)

To conclude, my Brexit apocalypse dream did not include a shortage of toilet paper or kitchen rolls nor did it include a reflection on Parliamentary Constipation. Nevertheless, what is very clear is that the outcome of Parliamentary Constipation is the inability of Parliament to pass appropriate motions and this has escalated Brexit uncertainty. At the moment, the UK government still has four options:

  1. A deal.
  2. No deal.
  3. A long extension.
  4. Revoking Article 50.

Whatever happens, there is one certainty. Brexit has been released from Pandora’s Box and there is no return; Brexit is the new normality. It is also important to remember that signing the withdrawal agreement provides no long-term certainty, but rather is the beginning of another set of Brexit discussions. Parliament’s ability to cope with these negotiations will result in another onset of Parliamentary Constipation. A long extension is a period of more uncertainty and more Parliamentary Constipation. Revoking Article 50 will not return Brexit to Pandora’s Box. Perhaps, the most certainty comes from a no deal. This would produce short-term difficulties that would result in adaptation strategies. But, no deal is politically unacceptable given the drivers behind Parliamentary Constipation.

There is a danger that the UK is walking towards a no deal Brexit. Nevertheless, it is also worth switching this around to argue that the European Commission is walking towards a no deal. Would this reflect Michel Barnier’s failure or success?

This blog was written by Professor John Bryson, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.

Disclaimer: 
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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Author: John Bryson

Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness, City-Region Economic Development Institute, Birmingham Business School, The University of Birmingham, UK

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