As we reach the fourth anniversary of Britain’s official departure from the European Union, the concept of Brexit as a cult – one that demands unwavering devotion to a set of often illogical, impractical beliefs – seems more reasonable than ever. While evidence against the cult mounts – we know that leaving the EU has knocked 4% off GDP, hampered small and medium-sized businesses, made things even worse for the left-behind areas that voted Leave in the highest numbers and inconvenienced just about every age group from Eramusless students to second-home snowbirds – its dwindling band of true believers still insist that everything is fine.
“I wouldn’t change anything around Brexit,” said former home secretary Priti Patel on January 31. “I can boldly claim that we have no regrets,” drawled Jacob Rees-Mogg. “I’m hugely delighted at Brexit,” said Andrea Leadsom, during a characteristically patronising interview in which she told business owners who were less delighted with it to pull their socks up and smell the sovereignty. “Leaving the single market was always going to have implications … I’m just saying that businesses need to adapt to meet the changing environment,” she said.
When Leadsom next travels from Westminster to her south Northamptonshire constituency, I wonder whether she might consider stopping in Watford on the way and explaining this to Vito Ricciardi. Unless you’re a devotee of stainless steel hornet sculptures, chainstore shopping or Watford FC, the Hertfordshire town doesn’t have much going for it, but Vito’s little deli and coffee shop, La Bottega Italiana on Market Street, is one of its biggest assets. It’s been open since 1976 and when I lived nearby, I went there every week or so, for about 15 years.
No doubt there will be something similar near you – if not Italian, then Spanish, Portuguese, Polish. Unfussy, delicious home-made specialities and quality imported stuff from the homeland, served up to the expat community and to locals with care, knowledge, good humour and a genuine love of food.
Not long after listening to Leadsom, I spotted an interview with Vito on the website of the local Watford Observer. He was worried, he said, that the new rules on food imports from the EU would create new costs that would have a damaging effect on him and his customers. “The challenge is for small businesses, I can’t hold these price increases so I have to pass them on,” he said. “I don’t know where the prices are going to go, and when customers think it’s unreasonable to pay, they will stop buying it.” He added that Brexit had already led to products “vanishing” from his shelves.
Businesses like Vito’s cannot survive on sovereignty or ill-defined jam-tomorrow dreams of a deregulated global Britain. Their struggle is now. Despite the happy clapping of Patel, Rees-Mogg and Leadsom, there are hundreds of thousands of Vitos – maybe millions – across the UK who are suffering, scared and in need of government help. Only a complete cult would pretend they don’t exist.