Brexit: This challenge is worth undertaking

It represents the most daunting government task since 1939—but properly handled it will give Britain a boost

March 30, 2017
©Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
©Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

There are those whose ideology prohibits them from believing Brexit can be good for Britain. The ideology held by others leads them to believe that Brexit can be nothing but a good thing for our country. The routine back and forth of the debate between those at either end of this ideological spectrum became increasingly off-putting to voters throughout much of the referendum.

I was with most of those voters who made up their minds on the basis of the probabilities associated either with remaining in or leaving the European Union (EU). How much more, or less of a chance would our departure from the EU give us of being able to control our own borders, for example? What effect, if any, would Brexit have on the decision making powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial arms of British democracy? And what distance can we put between ourselves and the collapse of the Euro?

As soon as the decision was made to leave the EU, I had two main concerns. First, how the government would lead the country in thinking through the consequences for the economy as a whole, and for individual households, of being excluded from the single market. The price of remaining part of it, we are told, is that there must be free movement of labour.

The second concern I had was over the way in which the government machinery itself would be geared towards negotiating a successful Brexit—both for our country and the EU.

Brexit represents, without a doubt, the biggest challenge to government, and the nation as a whole, since 1939. Back then, Neville Chamberlain boxed off the conduct of the war into a single department of government. When Winston Churchill became leader the whole government machine was refashioned with the overriding objective of winning the war. I do not see such a shift occurring at the present time.

There is no Brexit Cabinet in daily session working out our negotiating positions—the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, admitting recently that nobody in government has yet thought about the consequences if no Brexit deal is struck, is somewhat worrying. As the negotiations now look set to begin in earnest, the issue of immigration offers the government a means of refashioning not just its machinery, but also the whole debate over our post-Brexit economic settlement.

I would hope that the government is looking to offer an extended period during which workers from the EU have the chance to come to this country having applied for access on the same terms as workers from outside the EU.

It is clear that it will take an extended period of time for our country to build up a workforce at home that has the skills, and is prepared to do the work that is currently undertaken for us by people coming from the EU. Let’s make this weakness (lack of skilled workers) a strength by giving timed access to our labour market. This time-limited period of guarded access would, I hope, become a key part in our negotiations for continued access to the single market and, or at least, on the same time scale.

Alongside this aspect of our negotiations, the government would need to put the rocket boosters on its welfare reform programme, as well as its skills strategy, to match younger workers and those who are stranded on the welfare rolls to those occupations in which there could otherwise be a shortage in the absence of workers from the EU. The limit on access for EU workers needs to be linked to the success of the skills and welfare reform programme.

One proposal I have submitted to ministers is for a national offer of boutique apprenticeships which, in ten weeks, equip people with basic skills in bricklaying, plumbing, carpentry, and so on. The aim here is for our country to supply the necessary numbers and calibre of workers to help the government meet its objective of greatly increasing the supply of housing. After a year’s training on the job, those who have gained skills in this way can earn up to £150 a day—quite an attractive alternative to life on benefits, and a useful way of placing working-class families in the Brexit driving seat.