09 January 2018

The Government should not let EU talks dominate 2018, argues Bronwen Maddox.

The Cabinet  - refreshed if not reshuffled - faces a formidable set of challenges. They begin with Brexit, although if they end there the Government will have failed to meet its commitments to voters or their expectations.

The next phase of talks, to agree a “transition” and attempt to agree a future trade relationship, starts now. It would be reckless to wade into these negotiations without reference to economics, the striking omission since the referendum. David Davis’s contradictory assertions to a House of Commons committee about the existence of impact assessments need urgent remedy. The heat will turn on Philip Hammond to publish the assessments which he says the Treasury has conducted.

He should do so. The Government may feel that revealing which sectors are most vulnerable exposes too much in the talks. But EU negotiators can work this out themselves. The overwhelming reason for publishing economic assessments is that it will enable UK voters and MPs to consider the inevitable tradeoffs and whether they have their support. There is no point in the Government trying to forge ahead while keeping people in darkness. The tactic will blow up.

Brexit has also opened the door on wider constitutional questions which the Government needs to acknowledge. The Lords, where the Government has a minority, may test their powers in relation to secondary legislation and even challenge the Salisbury Convention that they in the end defer to the elected Commons. Tension with the devolved nations could be still more serious. Not only has the pre-Christmas fudge over the Northern Ireland border created ambiguities which may be impossible to sustain, but a major row could erupt if future trade deals do not acknowledge, for example, the devolved nations’ rights on agricultural and environmental policy.

However, the biggest mistake the Government can make is to let Brexit dominate everything. True, the Prime Minister and her ministers have at various points reaffirmed their commitment to improving the UK’s productivity, social mobility and public services, and to building more houses and infrastructure. They have picked the right targets in trying to turn around the UK’s longstanding problems. Yet in what may be the greatest cost of Brexit, the Government has struggled to put substance behind these professed priorities.

The UK’s stalled productivity is not a new question; for years, ministers have circled round the same answers of changes to the education system (especially further and technical education), investment in the regions and better infrastructure, these days all garnished with the word “digital”. Take infrastructure: the Institute for Government has shown that governments need to get much better at making decisions so that the UK is not repeatedly presented with an ugly choice between something big, very costly and late, or nothing at all.

Many key public services are in a state of strain after years of pressure on budgets. As the Institute shows, there were several years when services (such as prisons) did become more efficient under those pressures before a decline in service became evident - as it now has. Strategic answers are needed but without them the Government will be forced to continue doling out emergency cash. Some of these pressures - in health and social care above all - have been foreseeable for years. Solutions have indeed been mooted but remained politically inaccessible so far.

None of these problems are easy. If they were, they would have been solved and governments of many political hues legitimately struggle with them. But if they cannot find a way to begin to tackle them, or explain to people why the solution they want is not forthcoming, they will fail to meet expectations of public services, prosperity and social mobility. In an age when mistrust of government is already running high, they risk undermining further confidence in the parliamentary system. That, and the loss of time and attention to these longstanding problems, could prove part of the cost of Brexit. 

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