Anand Menon / Jun 2017
What was originally touted as a Brexit election has seen remarkably little discussion of, er, Brexit. Partly, this is down to events. The two terrorist attacks Britain has suffered during the campaign have, inevitably, moved the debate onto security. And even before that, the Conservative social care fiasco made this the leading issue for several days.
Partly too, however, the lack of debate seems to stem from the fact none of the parties seems willing to acknowledge what a big deal Brexit is. The UK in a Changing Europe recently produced a report on the promises made by the three main national parties. The single most striking conclusion was how Brexit is viewed, particularly by Labour and the Tories as a bump in the road, a job to be tackled before attention turns back to the bread and butter issues of governing the UK.
Thus, both parties deal with Brexit in a dedicated section of their manifestos, before turning to what appears very much like ‘business as usual.’ The complete absence of any recognition that the negotiations will be taxing and time consuming, and, that the implications of leaving the EU will be significant, is breathtaking.
As for the negotiations, our contributors point to a variety of difficult decisions that will have to be made. What is the future of pharmaceutical regulation once the European Medicines Agency leaves? How do we ensure we have enough staff in the NHS? Which powers will flow back to London and which to the devolved nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?
And then there are the implications of leaving. Think, first, of the economics. The Conservatives are clear. Under them, the UK will leave both the single market and the customs union. Labour are less so. They claim they will retain the benefits of the single market while ending free movement. This seems a tad unlikely. It has also long seemed to me that Jeremy Corbyn does not really get what the single market is. His repeated references to the need to secure ‘tariff free access’ to the market implies that he does not understand what the market (and indeed the customs union) is all about.
Such trivialities aside, the fact is that, whatever one’s view of the long term implications of Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, or some combination of this, will have significant short to medium term economic consequences. Leaving the single market and the customs will hit our trade with the EU badly – some economists reckon to the tune of a 40% 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.
So the money available for the kinds of 1970s style interventionism that the Tories and Labour promise will be extremely limited. Yet this is not the only problem they face. Brexit will tie up large parts of the British administrative system for a long time to come. Pasting EU law into UK law, passing the necessary primary legislation in areas like immigration and agriculture, figuring out relations with the devolved, ensuring appropriate regulatory structures are present at the national level, doing the same for customs inspectors….I could go on. The point, though, if it needs making explicitly, is that there will simply not be sufficient bandwidth (to use that hideous expression) to allow for the kinds of ambitious domestic policy initiatives both parties promise.
So, ultimately, mature debate of all this will have to wait til after the election. And, whoever wins, they will need to move relatively quickly to manage expectations. Brexit is not just another policy to be implemented before moving on. It will dominate our politics and our economics for the whole of the next parliament. Our politicians should have been more honest about that now.