Why the cupboards are bare in John Bull’s eating houses

The waiter at the ‘Cricketers’ bar and restaurant in the village of Yately was not a happy man. On a quiet Thursday night in November, eight of us had taken our seats at one of the largest prepared tables in the corner of this cozy little country pub beside the cricket green about 50 miles south-west of London. That’s when we made the drastic mistake of asking for the full restaurant menu. The waiter was not best pleased.

“I will give you the house menu and let you have a look, but then I’ll come back to you before you select your food and tell you the problem” he replied, with an ever so acute look of grumpiness on his face as he handed over the evening’s paperwork. “So take these, but don’t go choosing your food at this point anyway, not until I come back and tell you what’s written on the menu but NOT actually on the menu today – if you know what I mean?”

The truth is that at first I had no idea what he was talking about, but our hosts for the evening quickly intervened and put us out of our misery.

“It’s been the same everywhere here now for months” said the genial Cavan man at the top of the table as he prepared to unveil the secret.

Our experienced Breffni host is a keen political observer, who has even been known to get involved in the policies of some of the Tory party faithful over the years. But he wasn’t enjoying this new role that had been forced upon him.

“There’s hardly a pub or a restaurant anywhere in this country that hasn’t experienced part of the food shortage brought on by Brexit“ he explained. “Each and every eating house in London and well beyond has had trouble getting their food supplies in and out of here, and the reality is that when he comes back, you might be looking at only choosing from half the menu – in terms of what is actually available”.

Within a few minutes the full picture was unveiled.  The poor waiter – who looked ever so exhausted as he wandered from table to table repeating this same sad message – was about to begin his daily ritual of Brexit  fall-out news. Invariably it turned out to be a sad and sordid story.

‘The Cricketers is the heart of the community – the meeting place for distant friends, families catching up and a way to enjoy someone else doing the cooking and washing up for once’ said the heartwarning message on the inside of the shiny cardboard menu before us. As the waiter began to read the newly-shortened menu I’m afraid it was pretty clear that our friends across the Irish Sea are far from at the heart of anything at the moment – especially the European community. They are in fact suffering the direct implications of not even being able to draw upon local labour, not to mention folk from anywhere else outside their own island…for their lorry-driving, fruit-picking, and whatever other key service sector work people are needed for.

The truth is it’s all a bit of a shambles at the moment over there in John Bull land. The implications of Brexit have been disastrous for the food supply chains of the main restaurants, and even worse for the rural country pubs which are outside those chains. The cupboard is not bare – but from what we witnessed I can tell you it’s heading that way.

As the waiter cleared his throat again and began to read from the newly-edited virtual menu, the depth of the problem and its implications for the eight palettes around the table became even more obvious.

“The southern fried chicken burger served with mango & chilli sauce is OFF, so too the Korean fried chicken with the freshly hand-battered mango, and the lime chicken thighs tossed in Korean BBQ sauce. The chicken breast on a gammon steak topped with smoked streaky bacon is definitely OFF, so too the salmon, king prawns and rosemary sea salted skin on fries…I’m afraid we have no chicken and woodland mushroom pie planned for this evening. We do have garlic bread – but not as a starter – and all going well we should have enough to go into the portions with the pasta (one of the few dishes that remained). The good news is that the steak is ON”.

With that detailed clarification delivered he was gone again, scurrying away to the next table to pass on his news – and leaving us to scratch our weary heads again and try and work out what exactly was left on the restaurant menu to satisfy our need for some evening grub.

Over the course of two visits to the UK in recent weeks, scenes similar to that one in a Yately village pub were repeated on umpteen occasions. The problem surrounds the fact that our friends in the British Government and all their related agencies and business contacts had their eye on the wrong ball prior to the brutal arrival of Brexit. Instead of even thinking about the potential shortage of staff and the people they relied on to drive their lorries, pick their fruit and do their hard work for them, they were fixated on the world trade situation and the tariffs they were facing to try and get the food across the oceans and to keep the shelves filled.

Now the hard reality has hit them. That is the fact that the harsh form of Brexit pursued by Boris Johnson’s Government – which introduced stringent immigration policies and took Britain out of the EU market for goods and energy – has made it so much harder for British companies to hire the European workers they so badly need, and much more costly for them to do business with the country’s single biggest trading partner.

It didn’t have to be this way – and the Brits were told this so many times. Worker shortages were not an inevitable outcome of Brexit, nor was going it alone on energy a must. But in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s frantic rush to ‘get Brexit done’ – amid the frenzied negotiations with the European Union – those agreements in several crucial areas, including trade, labour and energy, had to be sidelined while the soundbytes in the media ruled the day.

Those ever so wise Westminster bosses couldn’t act fast enough to unveil their new post-Brexit immigration system, clearly designed to reduce the numbers of unskilled workers coming to Britain and end what Boris said was the country’s “reliance on cheap, low-skilled labour”. This, despite the fact they already had a domestic unemployment rate in the region of just five per cent. The policy was just bonkers.

The reality, as now seen in every supermarket and restaurant in the UK, is that the Government made a political decision to make low-skilled immigration more difficult, and are now paying the price in terms of labour shortages that could have been far less severe on the public if the UK had retained free movement of people post-Brexit. The saddest part of all is that they could well have easily achieved that in the negotiations – but of course they couldn’t get out the door quick enough in the end.

There wasn’t much sympathy for them around the table in the Cricketers’ bar and restaurant last week. I believe that if the Brexit referendum was held again, the vast majority of the British people would vote to go back into the European Union. The tragedy is that the politicians have gone so far up the hill now, it is unlikely they will ever come back down. In the meantime, their dinner plates and shop shelves are becoming lonelier by the day. I hate to say I warned them, but…