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September 12, 2021

From one end of the supply chain to the other, the UK's food producers have endured a summer of trouble. "The cold stores didn't have enough space to hold our crops, so we had to throw away a week's worth of production," explains Iain Brown, vice chairman of East Scotland Growers (ESG). "And we've not had enough workers to harvest our vegetable crops, meaning they are going to waste."

While food shortages have been common in many countries over the course of the pandemic, Brown believes that one issue unique to the UK is making life extra painful: Brexit.

According to Brown, the two essential prongs of production -- first, getting fresh food out of the ground, and then distributing it onto supermarket shelves -- are both taking a hit due to a lack of workers.
First, a lack of truck drivers, who take fresh items like cauliflowers to and from freezing facilities, meant that the ESG cooperative at one stage had to throw away a week's worth of production, at an estimated cost of £1 million ($1.4 million).

Second, Brown says that many of the seasonal workers, who would come from countries like Romania and Bulgaria for a few months to harvest vegetables, are now in short supply. Lawmakers in Johnson's own party have been receiving phone calls from constituents angry that they have been unable to get their goods into Europe because of Brexit.

"They know we can't do anything in a lot of instances. The government's websites are not very helpful and they simply are not getting the help they need," one lawmaker on the government payroll previously said, "It's difficult. They are angry that people are canceling orders and that I personally cannot get a French visa for them," they add.

This week, Britain is "on course to lose its status as one of Germany's top 10 trading partners this year for the first time since 1950," citing "Brexit-related trade barriers" as the cause. All these difficulties were predicted by numerous critics of Johnson, as industry bodies lobbied the government for alternative arrangements to mitigate damage. Johnson has been repeatedly criticized by industry leaders and opponents for what they see as his reckless lack of preparation for Brexit.

Despite this, Brexit's fallout is not being used by Johnson's political opponents, who are instead whacking him over domestic issues. But why? "The problem with these sorts of stories is they happen incrementally," says Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester. "One of the very tragic things about these stories is that in order for the public to really pay attention to them, something really dramatic has to happen. Unfortunately, that might be an overworked lorry driver crashing into a family car or children falling ill through malnourishment."

Until that point, Johnson can largely deflect the blame for these problems onto the pandemic. Ford notes this goes down well with his base of "Leave" voters, many of whom are sick of being told that Brexit was a disaster, and often willing to believe other explanations.

But Brexit really is starting to bite. It was never going to be the case that the UK would immediately fall apart. But little by little, many of the assurances made in 2016 and during years of negotiations are cracking. Perhaps one day Johnson will deem it politically expedient to introduce greater mitigation against the downsides of Brexit. Yet even the timing of that is problematic: Admitting you need damage control means there is damage to control.

And, given that much of Johnson's political legacy will be defined by leading the campaign to "free" Britain from Brussels, the longer he can dodge criticism for not just Brexit as a concept, but his chosen implementation of it, the less his greatest accomplishment becomes a millstone round his neck.