You could hear the slapping of thighs across the Continent yesterday, from the lunch tables of Brussels to every foreign ministry in the eurozone.
Have you heard? Those stupid Britishers are about to pay the French to produce their stupid blue passports!
Here in Britain, diehard Remainers were thrilled. ‘The irony is unreal,’ gloated a spokeswoman for the anti-Brexit pressure group, Best for Britain.
Except no one is laughing here at the Gateshead factory which currently produces every British passport — ten million of them a year.
Having been granted an exclusive interview inside the fortress-like De La Rue plant, I find a highly skilled, highly motivated, deeply patriotic, Geordie workforce who are not only feeling betrayed but are deeply suspicious of this incomprehensible decision.
The only ‘irony’, as far as they are concerned, is that this was a part of Britain which voted strongly in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
Daily Mail’s Robert Hardman (pictured) visited the Gateshead headquarters of De La Rue, the British firm losing a £490m contract to make British passports to a Franco-Dutch one
A Franco-Dutch firm has been awarded a £490m contract to print Britain’s next generation of blue passports, stock picture
Yet the Government has decided that production of the ultimate symbol of British sovereignty should be removed from the North-East — and from a British company operating since before the Battle of Waterloo — and handed to a French consortium.
‘Our workforce really did feel that as a factory in the North of England, in the year of Brexit, with a faultless track record, they were not going to lose this contract,’ says Alan Newman, De La Rue’s head of advanced engineering. ‘So, frankly, we are in shock.’
The fact that no British company would ever be allowed to produce French passports — on the grounds that they are matter of French national security — has compounded the anger.
Why, the locals ask, does Britain slavishly follow procurement rules cheerfully ignored by the rest of Europe?
To cap it all, this De La Rue production line has never had a single day’s industrial action since winning the passport contract — unlike the state-run Passport Office which it supplies. Indeed, it has never missed a single delivery.
So to lose out to a French company on the same day that France is convulsed by a general strike only adds to the sense of disbelief on Tyneside.
‘I suppose it will be interesting if that should happen in the summer, just as everyone wants their passports,’ Alan adds with a joyless laugh.
From the moment you approach the De La Rue plant just off the A1, you realise that this is no ordinary factory.
Here in Britain, diehard Remainers were thrilled. ‘The irony is unreal,’ gloated a spokeswoman for the anti-Brexit pressure group, Best for Britain. Except no one is laughing here at the Gateshead factory (De La Rue headquarters pictured) which currently produces every British passport — ten million of them a year, writes Robert Hardman
It is one of the most secure high-tech industrial sites in Britain. I haven’t even reached the front door when a disembodied voice greets me through an intercom and orders me to get off private property.
Aside from a single flag and a small sign, it feels more like a prison than a place of work. The last time I encountered this sort of security was when I visited the Royal Mint.
But then this place produces even more money than the Mint. While the Mint does coins, De La Rue makes bank notes for 150 nations worldwide, including the UK — all of which adds up to some seven billion bank notes each year.
In 2009, it won the new contract to make all our passports, using the same tamper-proof technology it applies to the bank notes. De La Rue’s passport technology has even received a design award.
‘Our workforce really did feel that as a factory in the North of England, in the year of Brexit, with a faultless track record, they were not going to lose this contract,’ says Alan Newman (pictured), De La Rue’s head of advanced engineering. ‘So, frankly, we are in shock.’
The director of engineering, Barry McDonnell, tells me that there are at least 20 different security measures in each passport, which I would never spot, which together ensure the validity of every British passport.
No one is suggesting that the new French-Dutch supplier, Gemalto, is incapable of making a secure passport. But the De La Rue team are baffled — and extremely sceptical — that the usurper has been able to undercut them by more than £100 million, as the Government is suggesting.
‘We are the biggest commercial passport manufacturer in the world, so we know a few things about this business,’ says Alan Newman. ‘And we are very competitive.’ Might the French be cutting some very big corners? He’d rather not comment.
I am sitting in a drab meeting room in the front section of a huge factory site which employs 600 people. Around 150 work on passports, while the rest concentrate on bank notes.
There is no chance of even looking inside one of the production lines, on security grounds.
The lucrative contract has been awarded to Gemalto, who have offices in Holland and France
I have had to show my passport (made here, of course) and scan my security pass four times to get this far. Nor am I even allowed to record the names of any regular employees, on the grounds that they might be compromised.
But I get a very clear view of what people think inside and out. Karen Young, 51, works at the supermarket over the road and is appalled.
‘It’ll have a knock-on effect for everyone round here,’ she says. ‘And, of course, we should make our own passports here in Britain. It’s terrible.’
‘Keep ’em here,’ chips in her friend, Bev Fitzpatrick. Everyone seems to know someone at the plant.
‘As Barry explains, staff retention is so high that no one ever leaves. It is why the news is especially painful.
Home Secretary (pictured outside Downing Street this week) signed off on the decision, which triggered fury from MPs
‘This is a very loyal workforce. When we had all that snow the other day, you had people walking for miles to make their shifts.’
Despite the French ring to its name, De La Rue has its roots in the Channel Islands during the reign of George III.
In 1813, a hot-headed Guernsey printer called Thomas de la Rue had a row with his business partner and set up his own newspaper on the island.
More interested in printing than editorial content, he moved to London to set up a printing business.
An early ‘de luxe’ version of the New Testament was acclaimed but not a bestseller. De La Rue sold hats to keep the business afloat.
In 1830, however, he patented a new method of colour printing. As a result, he started producing the first modern playing cards.
They were so impressive that he earned a royal warrant from William IV and an honourable mention from Charles Dickens.
The company went on to produce postage stamps for the Empire and had a starring role at the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a new-fangled machine that produced a brilliant new invention — the envelope. A century later, it would design the first cash dispenser.
But it is bank notes which have been its core business, ever since it produced the first £5 note for Mauritius in 1860.
Today, we all have a De La Rue product in our purses and pockets whenever we leave the house.
The company will continue to thrive without the passport business. It has four other operations printing bank notes in Essex, Malta, Kenya and Sri Lanka.
When Iraq needed an entire new economy delivered overnight, all the De La Rue plants went into overdrive and delivered billions of pounds worth of currency in a fleet of Boeing 747s.
But the biggest factory of the lot is this one in Gateshead.
And it is extremely proud that it has produced tens of millions of the most advanced biometric passports ever made without a complaint.
Surely what is good enough for the Bank of England is good enough for Passport Control?