Natalie Bennett: The government is in a dangerous state of denial over the EU transition period

EU talks cannot continue amid the coronavirus crisis, writes the Green Party peer.

As you might expect, I’ve spent the bulk of my time this week on the coronavirus pandemic, specifically in a debate in the Lords on the budget and subsequent financial measures.

But I also spent time talking about waste strategies and renewable heat provisions. These are crucially important issues – the future of the planet is at stake – but not you might think the highest priority at the current moment.

These were briefings arranged a couple of weeks ago – what feels like a political age now – although converted of course to telephone calls rather than face-to-face meetings.

I went ahead with them, rather than postponing, however, because I’d been listening on Monday to Lord True, the Cabinet Office Minister, saying firmly, and with some passion, that absolutely, the end of the Brexit transition would not be delayed.

And if that were true, then the government will have to get through parliament, soon, the long-delayed Agriculture and Environment Bills (and Fisheries), as well as – as the Lords discussed on Thursday, an entire new system of aviation regulation. And much before beside.

So as the Green Party we have to be ready to ensure that this legislation – set to decide arrangements for decades to come – is the least worst that it can be.

Of course, if it is going to stick to its Brexit timetable, with the transition period at the end of this year – demanding a decision on go-ahead at the end of June – the government is also going to have to continue with the negotiations.

On Tuesday it was insisting, no it is fine, these can be done by videoconferencing, and they’d go ahead next week. The official government position, at time of writing, is that we are sticking to the Brexit timetable.

To say this is absurd feels like a serious understatement. This week in the House we’ve seen amazing things happening. Norman Lamont calling for helicopter money, Lord O’Neill of Gatley calling for the government to guarantee everyone’s income.

As the Treasury Minister Lord Agnew of Oulton said: “In the course of a week the world has changed”.

I was struck yesterday by the reflections of the Guardian sketchwriter John Crace about nudge theory, and how it has worked out for the government. Instead of ministers “nudging” the people in what it sees as good directions, it has seen itself nudged – or rather dragged – into action by the people.

On everything from school closures to bans on gathering, community, individual and business action has been in front of the government. It has followed, not led.

And that’s deeply disturbing. In times of the pandemic, we need calm, focused, organised leadership.

On Monday, I joined others in the House calling for an immediate announcement of a 12-delay to the extension of the Brexit transition period to the end of 2021. That reflects many others outside the House calling for the same thing.

The urgent necessity, the need for every arm of government, everyone involved in public life, to be focused on dealing with COVID-19, should have acted on the government on Monday.

Since it did not, it certainly should make the declaration today. With the chief EU negotiator Michael Barnier infected with the virus – and the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost suspected of having it – this is giving into the inevitable.

But it will at least provide a rare moment of clarity in our current sea of uncertainty.

A lot of unpredictability is currently unavoidable. Brexit uncertainty is not.

Natalie Bennett is a Green Party peer, former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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