James Bielby

Bielby column: All eventualities possible for Brexit

With drama around Brexit stepping up a notch with the release of the government’s white paper, wholesalers need to hold their nerve

The last month has probably been the most dramatic in the Brexit story since the referendum. We have seen the cabinet meeting at Chequers followed by publication of the government’s long-awaited White Paper on EU Exit, and the EU’s less than positive response to it. There have been a lot of comings and goings in government, with some very high profile resignations, as well as some by rather more obscure ministers.

In the Commons, the government won two key votes and lost a third. With the need for MPs to pass a “meaningful vote” on any Brexit deal, the Parliamentary arithmetic remains very close. The next few months will be critical to understanding the type of Brexit – if any – the UK will face.

Beyond the headlines, it has also been a busy month for officials and trade associations doing the necessary work of planning for Brexit. FWD is in regular dialogue with officials across government, as well as other trade associations in the supply chain, to ensure members get the clarity they need on what the future holds post-Brexit.

This lobbying has had success. The white paper is a credible basis for negotiation with the EU and recognises our concerns over maintaining integrated food supply chains with the EU. The government agrees that the UK and the EU should have no-friction access to each other’s markets for food, which is great news for the sector.

No deal threat

Alongside this, the government is also stepping up preparations for the Noel Edmonds option – no deal. There is no question that wholesalers need to be ready for that eventuality. Over the summer, DExEU will be publishing up to 70 technical notices providing possible scenarios under no deal, so businesses can plan accordingly. Twenty of these cover food.

However, the likelihood of no deal will not become clear until after October’s EU Council meeting, and that meaningful vote in Parliament towards the end of the year. Should it look likely then that the UK will leave the EU in March 2019 without a deal, we might see wholesalers stockpiling food, as was reported in the media.

There is no evidence of any stockpiling at present, not least because of the perishable nature of many foods. Businesses may be forward ordering from suppliers if they believe there might be a shortage in the future, which could in turn lead to artificial shortages of some products should no deal occur, but hopefully this can be avoided.

That’s why FWD will be doing all we can to support the government in its negotiations so no wholesaler faces a cliff edge and so no customer is denied the choice they rightfully expect.

Brexit FWD column James Bielby