- Ten months from now, according to doom-mongers, we could be back on rations
- With lines of lorries backing up more than 30 miles from the Channel ports
- To which I can only say: don't forget to include the flying pigs — and the plague of frogs, too. For this is claptrap
Ten months from now, according to the doom-mongers, we could be back on rations for the first time since the Fifties. With lines of lorries backing up more than 30 miles from the Channel ports, Britain will face gridlock and food shortages.
For a hellish mess of endless paperwork and bureaucracy lies in wait if we leave the European customs union and the frictionless trade which comes with it. Things will be even worse on the island of Ireland as the terrorists disinter their hidden stashes of Kalashnikovs and Semtex to wage war on any British attempts to reimpose a post Brexit border between North and South.
This, then, is the Project Fear vision of Britain in March 2019. There is only one way to avert this catastrophe, according to the more hysterical members of the House of Lords: we must cave in on all this Brexit nonsense, forget about silly free-trade agreements and remain locked into the customs union. Otherwise our entire haulage industry will seize up while the bullets fly in Crossmaglen.
To which I can only say: don't forget to include the flying pigs — and the plague of frogs, too. For this is claptrap.
The vexed question of the Irish border is back with a vengeance these days. What should be a footnote to the Brexit negotiations is being elevated to an existential crisis by Brussels and Westminster's energetic gang of Brexit-wreckers.
The EU has warned that Brexit talks could collapse entirely if agreement cannot be reached on a way to handle £3 billion of annual North/South trade — between Northern Ireland, which will be outside the EU after Brexit, and the Republic, which will still be inside it.
Arch-Remainer Lord Patten has likened any attempt to create a border between the two countries as 'a can of petrol and a box of matches'.
Quite apart from the deplorable tactic of absolving the terrorist and blaming the Government for violence, Patten neglects the fact that a border already exists for different excise duties levied on fuel, alcohol and tobacco products; that a border already exists in terms of currency (Ireland has the Euro, Ulster has the Pound); and the world has moved on from old-fashioned barriers and checkpoints anyway.
Of course, it suits the Project Fear brigade to paint the Irish border as Armageddon if it keeps us in the customs union because that, in turn, prevents us conducting any free trade deals with the rest of the world. Whereupon Brexit is scuppered.
But those peddling this alarmist nonsense should take a trip, as I did this week, to the end of the A14 — and then apologise.
For here on the quayside at Felixstowe — Britain's largest container port by a very large margin — they deal with 25 times more trade than the entire North/South Irish border every year.
Before my eyes, scanners and barcodes are speeding containers on their way. If they can do so here, they could surely help find a way to break the deadlock over tariffs?
And remember, there is not a customs officer in sight. One Suffolk quayside handles £80 billion of trade a year — that is £77 billion more than the entire Irish border — without a glitch.
Right now, I am surrounded by 50,000 containers stacked across an 835-acre site. Things are busy as you would expect, but certainly not hectic.
The atmosphere is calm. Some of these huge metal boxes are on the way into Britain fully loaded, some on the way out. But all will move one way or the other as soon as the owners want them.
Urgent or dangerous goods — fireworks for example — will be off the premises in no time. Containers with frozen goods inside are stacked on special electrified cold storage racks. Those which are part of a particular supply chain, for a car plant or supermarket group, will wait for their slot in the customer's schedule.
In effect, I am looking at Britain's biggest warehouse. And I can find no one here who is unduly worried about the 'hardness' or 'softness' of Brexit, for the simple reason they will cope with whatever the system asks of them — just as they do already. And this place is still expanding.
Given that the average insured value of each container is £20,000, I am actually looking at a billion pounds of trade right now. And most of it has had nothing to do with the EU customs union.
Over the course of a year, four million container units —the great majority from outside the EU — will pass through Felixstowe on some of the world's biggest ships. Because they are mainly non-EU goods, they must be declared and processed.
As it happens, many EU containers in the same ships already go through this system because it is so painless and it just would be more complicated to separate them from the non-EU stuff.
And guess what? It all works like clockwork.
A further 250,000 containers currently come and go by lorry each year on the roll-on/roll-off ferries heading to and from the Netherlands.
Because they are travelling inside the EU and thus inside the customs union, these goods do not need to be declared. Post-Brexit they may need to be. In which case, they will have to comply with the same process as the other four million. It is not rocket science. In fact, it is not even particularly difficult.
Here on the quayside, five mega-ships are all unloading and reloading at once. The one immediately in front of me is a record-breaker, the OOCL Indonesia. There is nothing bigger on the high seas.
It arrived from the Far East a few hours earlier and will disgorge its non-EU cargo of absolutely everything under the sun in just a day or so, before heading on to Rotterdam and then back to the Far East.
A North Sea ferry beetles in to an adjacent berth fresh from the Netherlands, bearing goods from inside the EU. It looks like a child's bath toy compared to the 22- storey Hong Kong-registered behemoth next to it.
The OOCL Indonesia is a quarter of a mile long. It carries the equivalent of 21,000 container units. In other words, it has a cargo worth £420 million at any given moment.
Brexit will not make the slightest difference to this astonishing operation. A ship like the OOCL Indonesia shifts goods worth billions every year. Its owners have a very simple global perspective. If Britain wants stuff, Britain will get stuff — and on time.
Just a handful of human beings are involved in this extraordinary mechanical ballet. The crane drivers work simultaneously on different bits of different ships, lifting off containers like blocks of Lego and plonking them on to trailers.
The trailer drivers then shuttle each container to the airport-sized container yard, where another crane puts them in their pre-assigned places. Most will be on a rail wagon or lorry to somewhere in Britain within hours.
This place doesn't have one rail terminal. It has three. There are two things I fail to see all day: any paperwork, and Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. That is because this vast operation has no paperwork. And there is no customs officer either.
A container can be off the deck of the OOCL Indonesia, on a lorry and out on the road in quarter of an hour, even if it has come from that terrifying land of anarchy and strife — otherwise known as 'the world outside the EU'.
That is because of an automated customs system that works perfectly. All of which raises that same question: if Felixstowe can smoothly handle £80 billion in trade from outside the customs union each year, is it really so hard for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to cope with a mere £3 billion without going to war?
The fact that I cannot spot any customs checks at Felixstowe does not mean they are not going on.
HMRC monitors every single non-EU container on every ship.
They just don't happen to have a team of pen-chewing functionaries with hi-viz jackets and clipboards wandering around the dockyard kicking tyres and asking lorry drivers if they have anything to declare. That is a world that vanished years ago.
Here in Felixstowe, things are much slicker these days. The various agencies use intelligence-gathering and data analysis, not Jobsworths. Every year, 80,000 of the four million containers passing through here are cracked open and checked for any number of infringements.
I am taken inside 'Shed 70', a huge complex with a whole series of hermetically sealed testing areas, each the size of a supermarket. Some are solely for checking animal products, some for frozen food and so on.
We enter a spotless unloading bay used only for testing cargo containing nuts. The health inspectors have picked out a container full of sacks of groundnuts from Gambia.
They want a sample from every single pallet-load in order to check for a particular type of mould. In the next-door bay, trading standards officers have just confiscated a consignment of baby swings from China which are deemed to be suspect.
In other words, there are plenty of checks going on. But 98 per cent of non-EU goods will pass through here as easily as EU goods, for the simple reason that most have cleared customs before they even touch British soil.
They do so using a tried-and-tested digital cargo-tracking system developed here in Felixstowe. Known as Destin8, it has worked so well for more than a decade that it now processes most of the non-EU maritime trade coming into this country.
So how difficult would it be to adapt this acclaimed system if Britain left the customs union, so that it also had to include all the EU trade coming in to Felixstowe? Billions of pounds? Years of pain and technical heartache? Er, not exactly. It might take, ooh, a minute or so.
'It would probably involve a few extra keystrokes,' says Alan Long, chief executive of MCP, the company behind Destin8.
The system was developed years ago here in Felixstowe by a consortium of all the main players — the port people, the customs people, the shipping people and so on. It has now been adopted in 70 per cent of British ports.
Anyone trading goods from outside the EU clicks a few boxes on their computer and the software does the rest.
It will send the manifest (the description of the goods) and the customs declaration to every relevant party — including the shipping company, the port and the haulage company.
The details will also go to every border control agency from HMRC (who look for contraband), Port Health (food), DEFRA (crops), trading standards (dodgy goods), the Forestry Commission and dozens more.
The system gives every consignment a unique number known as an MRN — think of it as a barcode — which removes the need for paperwork altogether. The Destin8 system will also link in to HMRC's system, work out all the tariffs and duty, and automatically deduct whatever needs paying from the trader's account.
Every politician, on either side of the Brexit debate, should come to Suffolk and meet Alan Long and his small, motivated team in their hi-tech offices in a converted chapel on the edge of Felixstowe.
Yet few have yet to do so. Nor have the Whitehall experts charged with implementing our departure from the EU been to consult the real experts here in Felixstowe.
As far as Brexit is concerned, Mr Long says his company will just adapt their systems to suit whatever deal the Government and the EU agree. They are also exploring a specific solution to the Dover/Calais cross-Channel route and to the shorter routes across the Irish Sea, which have their own unique problems due to the brevity of the journey. A seven-hour North Sea crossing allows the current system quite enough time for any customs data to be processed.
In the time it takes a post-Brexit lorryload of apples to travel by ferry from the Netherlands to Felixstowe or Harwich, all will be sorted.
With shorter transit times, a different system will be needed to handle a similar lorryload between Calais and Dover or Fishguard and Dublin. Mr Long has no doubt a solution will be found.
'The logistics industry always finds a way to do these things,' he assures me. 'It will just be a hybrid system.' He can't be more specific for now as his company is in the midst of designing the answer.
And the Northern Irish border with Ireland? He says that the obvious common-sense solution for the moment is to ask exporters and importers to fill in self- assessment forms — much like tax returns — reinforced by rigorous spot-checks and penalties. Those do not have to take place at the border anyway.
Nearby, I meet Jason Flower, managing director of KWL Logistics and chairman of the Felixstowe Port Users Association.
He manages freight for many international exporters, and says that he has European clients who want to know how things will work after Brexit.
He himself voted against Britain leaving the EU, but says that now it is happening we need to make it work. Like everyone in Felixstowe — both Remainers and Leavers — he subscribes to the 'GOWI' philosophy: 'Get on with it'.
Is he filled with doom and gloom — or will things pan out? 'I'm an optimist,' he says. 'There may be some small extra costs to start with. It always takes a bit of time to get used to a new system. But we'll sort it out.'
He remembers the not-too-distant days of infernal paperwork — for both EU as well as non-EU goods. Things are so much better now.
Down at the cafe next to the harbour entrance, a small crowd is glued to the sight of another monster being nudged into her berth by two tug boats.
The Madison Maersk has come straight from Colombo, Sri Lanka, with 18,000 containers on top. Not one of them comes under the magic wand of the EU customs union.
Every single one needs its own 'MRN' barcode and customs declaration. Yet the first will be trundling up the A14 within the hour.
If Britain grinds to a halt next March, I will eat my hat (Remoaners insist there won't be much else on the menu). But if it does not, will those Brexit-wrecking peers be prepared to do the same?