The focus has been on surface politics but structural problems of government must be addressedby David Henig / July 18, 2019 / Leave a comment
This summer in UK politics was always going to be dominated by Brexit. The UK faces its greatest peace-time political crisis in modern history. The discussion now extends to deservedly obscure clauses of an international treaty dating back to 1948, and the even more arcane and historic prorogue powers held by the sovereign in our constitution.
All of this is important. But the political discussion has come at the expense of talking about other fundamental issues in the delivery of Brexit. Peer under the surface of the government’s Brexit handling since 2016 and we see much that needs fixing if the part that is most apparent to us, the actual negotiation, is to be successful.
According to the famous dictum, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. But several practicalities have largely been ignored, not just in the context of Brexit but for all policy areas.
Talk to civil service veterans and often their first comment is not on the big Brexit politics but the governing basics, of making sure there is a government machinery able to make decisions. This requires an effective heart of government operation, run by cabinet office and No 10 officials, making decisions in a coordinated and effective manner.
In the last three years this has broken down. Too many minor decisions were referred to the heart of government, where they were often delayed by months. Meanwhile major decisions, such as producing a trade strategy beyond Brexit, were not taken at all.
Unless the new prime minister swiftly fixes this inheritance they will struggle to achieve anything. It will also mean reversing the May administration’s suffocating secrecy. On leaving government in 2018 my early meetings with business were dominated by complaints of not knowing what was happening. Having sometimes spoken to people on both sides of the same meeting, what businesses were perhaps less aware of was that the officials they were talking with felt the same. Clearly the chances of building a shared mission or indeed effective policy under these conditions were low.
Establishing more positive relations with business generally is going to be one of the toughest challenges for the new PM. It took Theresa May most of her time in office to realise the importance of good relations even if the main business groups opposed her Brexit policy.
This will be even more of a challenge for an administration committed to a no-deal Brexit that is explicitly opposed by all major business groups. The immature response has been given far too many times by hardline Leavers, to accuse such groups of being in the pay of the EU. If the government takes that line it will only make relations worse. Far better to be clear that there will be disagreements, but to explain that there will also be a genuine dialogue. It is after all business which is being asked to shoulder most of the costs in the case of no-deal.
It may sound surprising that one of the government’s immediate priorities must be to establish an industrial strategy, but another failure of the May administration was to have no clear economic basis for decisions relating to the EU and trade agreements. Again, this speaks not just to high politics but structural issues. If there is to be a no-deal Brexit then different sectors will expect financial support, as we already see from commitments made by Jeremy Hunt to fishing and farming. But making decisions without proper analysis is likely to mean money wasted, and the economy locked into a structure inappropriate for our new trading relationships.
Similarly, we expect trade talks to commence with the US immediately after a no-deal, but on the UK side there is no clear analysis as to what we stand to gain from this, or indeed from other countries we choose to negotiate with. This is not a sustainable foundation for a country preparing for a rupture in its main trading relationship, without knowing where firms may be able to find new markets. Businesses have been relatively quiet about new trade deals given the more immediate no-deal challenges, but they will expect to have their say on the UK’s post-Brexit priorities, and so they should if the deals are meant to be for their benefit.
It is in the area of international deals, whether with the EU, at the World Trade Organisation, or bilaterally, where May failed most obviously, and her successor must learn quickly. For the political narrative since 2016 has been about international opportunities, but such deals always involve trade-offs, traditionally buried in dense technical papers.
May never seemed to be aware of such subtleties, and so far both Johnson and Hunt have followed her lead, Johnson for example saying “I’m not attracted to time limits or unilateral escape hatches, or elaborate devices, glosses and so on that you can apply to the backstop.” It is doubtful whether any international treaty has been completed under such puritanical terms, or indeed without elaborate devices. The ground will need to be laid for compromise, whether with the EU, US, or at the WTO.
Finding a future EU relationship which can be supported by the Conservative Party, parliament, and EU, is undoubtedly a severe challenge. Without proper preparation it is impossible, as May found to her cost. The next prime minister has only a few weeks to do what she failed to do in three years.