Brexit will kill the next government’s plans dead in the water

Britain’s exit from the EU will be impossibly complicated. Both parties can forget their ambitious manifesto pledges; they won’t have the time, or resources, to implement them

June 08, 2017
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/Zuma Press/PA Images
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/Zuma Press/PA Images

So much for the Brexit election. For all that Theresa May spoke of nothing else when announcing her intention to seek the dissolution of Parliament. For all the hopes of the Liberal Democrats that they might profit from "remoaner" resentment. For all the continued divisions over the issue. For all the crucial importance of Brexit for our future. Despite all of this, the big Brexit election debate simply never happened.

Partly, this was down to events. The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and the Tory cock-up over social care both shifted the agenda. Partly, however, it happened by design. Labour, of course, never wanted to talk about Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, let’s face it, wasn’t comfortable talking about the EU even during the referendum campaign. More significantly, while the Prime Minister wanted a Brexit election, this was intended in the narrow sense of a debate about who should lead the negotiations. What she absolutely did not have in mind was a proper debate about what different models of exit might mean.

This was understandable. The last thing the PM wanted was to be forced into making promises she could not keep. "No deal is better than a bad deal" is meaningless enough to commit her to nothing at all. She will, it would seem, have pretty much a free hand once the negotiations start.

It was also, however, short sighted and reckless. Some ten days before the start of negotiations, the British people are still being told to expect the impossible. Labour pledges to maintain the benefits of the single market while ending free movement. The Conservatives insist that they can sign a great deal with the EU, and if they can’t, no deal would be fine.

Yet at some point, expectations will have to be managed. Even if Brexit goes well, the model spelled out by the Conservatives will have significant economic consequences. Leaving the single market and the customs union will hit our trade with the EU badly—some economists reckon to the tune of a 40 per cent decrease. It will also, almost certainly, lead to a decrease in foreign investment. And of course reducing immigration – whether to the levels the Conservative foresee or not—will also have an impact on the public finances.

"Are ambitious plans for schools, or the NHS, or social care, or indeed anything realistic? I certainly do not think so."
All this will impact on our economy. Some economists reckon we’re talking a hit of about 3 per cent of GDP a year as a result of leaving the single market and the customs union. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that public spending might have to be £48bn lower in 2030 as a result.

So, at a minimum, and going merely on what the PM has said, there won’t be much in the way of ready cash for a new government to spend. That both the Labour and Conservative manifestos promise significant increases in state intervention, at significant cost to the exchequer is hardly reassuring. It merely confirms the suspicion that both of them see Brexit as something to get done before carrying on as normal.

But of course things won’t carry on as normal. If the economic constraints that Brexit implies are not enough to cool political ambition, then some thought should be given to more practical considerations. The task of managing Brexit will severely test the civil service. Not only must they coordinate the negotiations themselves. At the same time, they will need to make preparations for our departure, including: the transfer of all EU legislation onto our statute book; the drafting of new primary legislation in areas such as agriculture and immigration; negotiations with the devolved administrations as to where in the UK powers returned from the EU should be returned to; and ensuring that Britain has the necessary regulators, customs inspectors and the rest to cope with life outside the EU.

Given all this, are ambitious plans for schools, or the NHS, or social care, or indeed anything realistic? I certainly do not think so. And whilst this hasn’t stopped the parties, I cannot believe these plans will be either affordable or, practically manageable or, consequently, implemented.

Brexit, in other words, will change everything. It may well be that, over time, our economy adapts, and that we sign those trade deals with everyone from the US to Australia. Brexit is not Armageddon. But it is a challenge. What a pity no one thought to mention this in the Brexit election.

By Anand Menon, director The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affair, King’s College London. Read Red, Yellow and Blue Brexit: the manifestos uncovered for more on Brexit and the General Election