December 10, 2017

Once Brexit is complete politicians will have fewer excuses for failing to do what Britain’s voters expect them to do. Missing immigration targets will be due to inadequate Home Office policy, rather than because of an unexpected and unstoppable surge of cheap labour from eastern Europe. It will be UK courts that will have to take responsibility for any failure to deport foreign criminals. If fish stocks in British waters are low then the buck will stop at the desk of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – rather than an EU policy regime that Her Majesty’s Government cannot control. And so on.

But, just for the moment, Brexit is doing what membership of the European Union also did and is complicating lines of accountability for politicians. Most recently the government’s social justice agenda (or lack thereof) has been blamed on the time, energy and brainpower that the divorce from Brussels is eating up.

Alan Milburn cited Brexit when, last week, he resigned from the government’s social mobility commission.

Nicky Morgan, the staunch Remainer who now chairs the Treasury Select Committee, never misses an opportunity to undermine Brexit and told ConservativeHome readers that social reform had been sidelined because the government’s best brains were fixated on getting a good deal from Brussels.

And an opinion poll for today’s Independent finds the public in agreement with this ‘blame Brexit’ argument. 60% say important domestic issues are being neglected as a result of Britain’s most important post-war negotiations.

Sorry folks but it’s too easy to blame Brexit for this government’s general inertia and, with respect to the urgent need to address the acute social problems facing advanced western nations, it’s wholly unacceptable. It’s not acceptable because the whole ‘blame Brexit’ argument rests on the false assumption that a lot of effort would be needed to move one nation policy ideas from the drawing board to the take-off stage. Many are already on the runway and could be quickly airborne if there was the will.

Here are five policies that could be implemented by any one of the 95% of ministers who aren’t involved in the Brexit process…

  1. Cancellation of middle class tax cuts1 and diversion of the money saved to improve the incentive structures within Universal Credit or to ease the council tax burden that disproportionately hits poorer families.
  2. A green light for – as Sajid Javid, the freelancing Communities Secretary, had proposed – greater capital borrowing while maintaining tight control of day-to-day (or current) spending. This could help finance the houses that the south needs and the infrastructure that the northern and rural economy lacks (if you’ll forgive the slight over-simplification).
  3. Reform the 1961 Land Compensation Act (as Nick Boles recommends in his ‘Square Deal for Housing’ manifesto) so that the surge in land value when planning permission is granted is shared more fairly between the private landowner and the taxpayer. Many Tory MPs would not like this proposal (because of the way it retrospectively changes the terms under which some investors decided to use their money) but it would almost certainly be supported by enough opposition MPs to become law and would release billions for investment in affordable homes and the infrastructure that is needed to support them.
  4. Implement the manifesto to strengthen families put together by Tory MP Fiona Bruce and Tory peer Lord Farmer. Its eighteen simple and cheap policies would start to address the government’s current lack of interest in supporting the institution that the Pope has correctly described as the best educator, hospital and welfare provider.
  5. And, finally, how about rehiring the welfare advisers to David Cameron who were summarily dismissed when Theresa May became PM? They had been working on a ‘life chances’ agenda and were ready to launch policies to address the paths to poverty caused by addiction, debt and mental illness. Their work was unforgivably binned when nearly all advisers to the outgoing PM were axed in an unnecessarily bloody clear-out.
Brexit shouldn’t be used as an excuse for less social reform. ‘Leave’ won the referendum because millions were desperate for fundamental change.
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In each of these cases the reason for inactivity is not Brexit…

In the case of policy one, it’s inadequate recognition that the benefit freeze that Philip Hammond left in place was proposed at a time when the rate of inflation was much lower. The freeze is causing real misery for many Britons who have to count every penny.

In the case of two it’s Mrs May’s unwillingness to sack her excessively cautious Chancellor and his support for the Treasury short-termist approach to the public finances. The failure to borrow now in order to increase the housing stock will only lead to higher housing benefit bills in the future but Britain’s finance ministry is too rigid in instinctively opposing preventive interventions of this kind.

In the case of three it’s fear of giving Jeremy Corbyn any kind of victory but if Mrs May is serious about housing being her number one priority she has a choice: reach across the aisle and deliver this grand reform or continue to promise big but deliver small.

THERESA MAY ABANDONED A NEAR COMPLETE SET OF POLICIES THAT DAVID CAMERON HAD DEVELOPED WHICH WOULD HAVE FOCUSED ON IMPROVING THE LIFE CHANCES OF PEOPLE AT THE VERY BOTTOM OF SOCIETY. CREDIT: PA IMAGES.

In the case of four it’s simple lack of interest – throughout the Tory party – in family policy. At this year’s Tory conference in Manchester, for example, there was just one fringe meeting on the family (hosted by the Centre for Social Justice). If that meeting hadn’t have been held there wouldn’t have been anything at all on this most vital of social institutions at the conference.

Any why isn’t policy set five happening? The explanation is a deliberate political shift to woo a certain kind of voter. Mrs May made it clear, on becoming PM, that her focus would be the ‘just about managing’ class and, very regrettably, she shelved what might have been a great and honourable Tory focus on the helping the people at the very bottom, who are aren’t managing at all, or are hardly managing.

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Post-the-Brexit-referendum when so many people who don’t normally vote went to polling stations in the hope for change… Post-the-general-election when the commanding Tory lead in opinion polls evaporated as voters signaled they did not want ‘stable’ but change… Post-the-Grenfell-tragedy when it was impossible to remain ignorant of the inadequate housing standards that so many have to endure…. Post these things it was and is vital that the party of Wilberforce, Disraeli and Macmillan rose/rises to the occasion. While it hasn’t enacted anything quite so regressive as its centre-right sister party on the other side of the Atlantic seems set to, the British Conservative Party has not yet come close to fulfilling the aspirations Mrs May set out on her first day in the nation’s top job. Most ministers are not involved in Brexit. Many complain at the control freakery of the Number 10 operation that stops them pursuing policies they’d like to. That desire by Mrs May to run the Whitehall machine as tightly as she used to run the Home Office is at least as much of an explanation for paralysis in government than Brexit. There are plenty of policies that could build the hope that is so absent at the moment – especially in the hardest-pressed corners of the country. And let’s not pretend that Brexit is the main reason that they’re gathering dust on Whitehall’s shelves.

FOOTNOTES
  1. See David Laws’ recent UnHerd column for why increases to income tax thresholds now largely benefit better-off, two-earner couples.

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