This immense constitutional challenge consumes all of the government’s timeby John McTernan / January 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Worried about rail fares? Anxious about the state of the NHS and the underfunding of social care? Concerned about house prices, rents and homelessness? If you are, it’s because you have been paying attention. But don’t sweat it—there’s no need for you to waste time and energy on these issues. This isn’t your year. Nor is next year. Why? The answer is simple—Brexit.
“Priority” is normally a cant term in politics—priorities are liberally scattered through speeches and documents. But for once there is truly only one priority—leaving the European Union. And nothing else matters.
Which is, of course, as it should be. Brexit has been well-described as the most complex challenge faced by the government in peacetime history. However, the relentless focus on Brexit is not the result of a coherent cross-Whitehall strategy, rather it is the consequence of catastrophic mismanagement. As Andrew Adonis put it when he resigned as Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission:
“Brexit is causing a nervous breakdown across Whitehall and conduct unworthy of Her Majesty’s Government. I am told, by those of longer experience, that it resembles Suez and the bitter industrial strife of the 1970s, both of which endangered not only national integrity but the authority of the state itself.”
There was a word Tony Blair used when he knew that something in government was going off the rails—it needed “grip,” he used to say. By which he meant that essential element of effective government—the combination of operational focus, strategic drive and dogged application that makes sure that things get done, changes are made. The cliché goes that the minister thinks a policy is implemented when it is announced in parliament, the civil servant thinks it is done when the circular has been issued—but the change has truly only happened when the impact is felt by the punter.
Operational expertise is the most neglected form of expertise in government—overlooked and undervalued. In contrast, policy and strategy are hugely overvalued. To understand the scale of the problem just think of housing. Any fool can announce a plan to build more houses, and many have—just look at the endless re-announcements about Ebbsfleet Garden City, which now has 762 homes rather than the 65,000 figure that was much publicised by ministers.
Why is housing supply such a taxing problem? Because of the number of elements involved—developable land, labour and materials. In each of these three areas there are multiple players. Land needs to be sold for development by owners and local government has to give planning permission. Developers and builders need to be able to turn a profit or land will lie vacant. Labour supply—already tight before Brexit—is now tighter still, thanks to the nature of the labour market, perennial skills shortages and EU workers seeking more certainty in jobs in a eurozone growing faster than the UK. I am only skimming the surface of this issue but you can see the point—systematic grip is needed to make sure that anything above trend actually happens.
Brexit, however, is so all absorbing that there is no capacity—or in the Whitehall jargon “bandwidth”—to focus on progress chasing, let alone operational direction, of anything else of substance.
The cost of Brexit is not merely the divorce bill or the long term loss of trade and growth, it is fundamentally the lack of attention that can be paid to all the other pressing challenges which, if unresolved, will damage the country for decades. So infrastructure planning, energy supply, health and social care integration, productivity, to name just a few, are neglected. For which we will all pay a hefty price.
Brexit Britain: the future of industry is a publication which examines the future of UK manufacturing through the prism of the recently released Industrial Strategy White Paper. The report features contributions from the likes of Greg Clark MP, Miriam Gonzalez, Richard Graham MP and Frances O’Grady.
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