James Frayne: Politicians are missing a trick by playing safe on Brexit

Written by James Frayne on 23 February 2018 in Opinion

Only Boris Johnson is really banging the drum for radical change after Brexit, but even his position is largely based on rhetoric.

How long until one of the political parties stands on a genuinely post-EU platform? I ask, because most politicians from all parties are busily trying to assure both the EU and the British electorate that nothing should really change when we finally leave. They’re missing a trick: while a narrow majority voted to leave the EU, it’s clear the public want change on a range of policy issues. Pretty soon, regardless of how they voted in the actual referendum, people are going to start demanding the parties tell us how they’re going to make life better once we’ve left.

While the European Research Group of sixty Conservative Brexit-supporting MPs are demanding significant change in Britain’s relationship with the EU, senior politicians are effectively promoting the status quo.

Over the last few months, Philip Hammond has assured financiers in Europe that Britain won't be slashing taxes and regulations to undercut European financial centres. David Davis made similar promises earlier this week, when he said that Britain would not be joining some sort of "Mad Max" world and slashing all regulations when we leave. And even Michael Gove, a Vote Leave veteran, said he believed Britain should retain access to large amounts of low-skilled migrants from Europe to serve the British agricultural sector.

Jeremy Corbyn now appears to be suggesting Britain should stay in the Customs Union. Only Boris Johnson is really banging the drum for a very different sort of Britain, but his position is largely based on rhetoric and tone – hamstrung as he is by his position in the Cabinet.

Politicians’ unwillingness to develop retail policies for life outside the EU is odd. After all, Vote Leave secured victory in part because they offered the possibility of attractive, post-EU retail policies that would appeal to the public. Most effectively, they called for a reduction in immigration and specifically the introduction of an “Australian-style points system”. Most memorably, they called for greater spending on the NHS, with money that’s currently spent on membership being diverted into healthcare. 

But there were other retail offers too. For example, Vote Leave argued for ending VAT on fuel – something that EU membership makes difficult. They also suggested the Port Talbot steelworks could have been saved through emergency acts like a state aid injection, were we outside the EU.

The controversy surrounding the narrow win and many of Vote Leave's campaign messages, most obviously on the NHS, has blinded politicians to the fact that they won an upset victory and that these policies were road-tested and found to be fundamentally popular. The parties ought to be pouring over the data on these policies to see exactly who responded to them and working out how best they could be implemented. The NHS pledge has been ridiculed but only because it hasn't been implemented. Why not implement it?

The failure to create post-Brexit policies lies chiefly with the Conservatives because they're in a position to design detailed policies now that they could implement shortly. But Labour are culpable too. Not long ago large sections for the Labour Party were explictly anti-EU because it was perceived as a neo-liberal club. They recognised EU membership was a barrier to a genuinely left-leaning economic policy agenda.

Now they have the opportunity to make this happen - with an economic policy totally biased towards British industry through the creative use of taxes and tariffs - but instead they're playing short-term political games to meet the demands of the Westminster media.

The first politician - or indeed the first political party - to create a manifesto designed to exploit the policy freedoms that Brexit brings will instigate a massive shock to the British political system and will steal a march on their competitors. At the moment, it looks like Boris Johnson is the most likely to do so but there are ambitious politicians in all the main parties that might spot an opportunity.




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