The reasons for this are pretty obvious. The UK simply doesn’t have enough time to organise itself to manage a trouble free quick break from the single market. We don’t have the necessary customs systems, the trained staff, or the space for the lorries to queue to enable the UK to leave the single market in March 2019. Crashing out without those systems and leaving our businesses to deal with the consequences is now looking so damaging that neither leader is prepared to take the risk. Both leaders have decided that it is better to avoid an utter shambles and opt instead to keep to EU systems and obey all the EU rules and regulations for a couple of years after we leave whilst we sort out some of the mess.
The way I look at this is that this means both major party leaderships have now accepted that slow and steady stupidity is better than rushing it. If you think differently and believe Brexit is going to be a rip roaring success then surely your focus would now be on sorting out the practicalities quickly so that it can actually happen.
Instead there remains a lack of detail and of clear thinking from both sides. Where is the debate about exactly what the UK farm policy will be when we leave the EU? Where is the debate about how our regional policy will work when the European Social Fund stops? Where is the debate about how we will exercise sovereignty over the new trade deals that we are supposed to be striking?
On several important issues it is possible to imagine a Brexit in which the UK has much improved policies. We could have agricultural subsidies which are carefully targeted to support smaller farms and environmentally sensitive policies. We could have investment programmes that rebalance the UK economy away from an over dependence on London and on finance and that create a powerful UK environmental industrial base in the regions. We could cut the fuel bills of our citizens and our companies by incentivising energy use reduction schemes which would help our companies compete better abroad.
So you’d expect the left to be furiously working on developing the detail of such policies, testing and challenging them in debate and getting them ready to put quickly and effectively into good regulations. Instead what emerged from the Labour Party Conference was either a ghostly silence or weak untested assertions. We were for instance told that a post Brexit Labour government would be free to make UK industry great again by creating a programme of industrial subsidies.
They might like to think rather carefully about how other countries will react if that is what Labour tries to do. Almost exactly at the same time as Labour was announcing this approach the United States government was imposing tariffs on Bombardier, a crucial business for Northern Ireland, because of a concern about possible hidden subsidies. How are our competitors going to react if there is an officially declared full scale programme of open subsidies? Getting out of the EU doesn’t free the UK up to subsidise its industries – it just leaves you wide open to bullying by larger trading blocks like the US or the EU we’ll have just left.
It is possible to come up with a strategy to support science and industry that won’t result in a trade war if you are far sighted enough to do so intelligently. The way to do it is to subsidise reduced energy use and thus costs, to support a major programme of scientific research and to establish a supportive framework for creative industries and small business startups. But that would involve an industrial policy suitable for the 21st century. So far all I am detecting from Labour is a weak re-working of traditional factory based industrial policy from the 1970s.
On the right things are even worse. You’d expect by now that Conservatives would have moved on from making silly assertions about £350 million a week for the NHS and have begun instead to start to tell us what regulations they are going to scrap and try to explain how they are going to increase UK trade when we’re outside the most attractive market for traders. Those explanations simply aren’t coming forward. Brexit was supposed to set us free to negotiate wonderful new trade deals with our glorious US partners and with other nations. No deals are progressing with any energy. Rather the reverse. The tariff war over Bombardier’s planes makes that crystal clear. Now the UK is planning to leave the EU the United States feels free to bully the UK in a trade war and that is putting jobs at threat in Northern Ireland.
The other big problem for the Conservatives is that if they tell people any hard facts about what they actually want to do after Brexit then they lose voters in shedloads. Few Conservative MPs want to tell a farmer that their subsidy is going to end. Fewer still want to talk to business about how extra paperwork and regulations are going to work or the costs and uncertainties of preparing for them. None have an appetite for explaining to workers and people concerned about their local environment which of their protections they are going to remove. None want to explain how much sovereignty we lose the second we sign a new trade deal and have to place the UK under the regulation of unelected international courts of arbitration. Worst of all none want to face down Conservative Party members and tell them that most of their pet ideas about what will happen after Brexit are impossible in practice.
Labour also has a problem about losing support if it spells out its policies with any clarity. The majority of Labour’s young and enthusiastic supporters think Brexit is a huge mistake. A significant minority of Labour’s voters want it to happen. Articulating what Labour will do after Brexit is therefore risky. So far we’ve have platitudes about being free to subsidise industry whilst improving workers’ rights. It isn’t easy to explain to voters how you are going to protect them better from the cold reality of international markets when you are committed to moving the UK outside one of the few world markets big enough and powerful enough to be able to sustain some degree of protection. Many young Labour supporters really favour freedom of movement. Many older ones have been persuaded that it is the cause of most of their problems. So the best strategy the party could come up with was to make sure there was no proper conference debate or vote on Brexit and to stay as silent as possible.
We have two major parties who are both reluctant to work out the details of something they say must happen in case it loses then support. That is not an approach that inspires confidence.
In these circumstances the Liberal Democrats ought to be picking up votes in shedloads. Instead they remain a toxic brand because the first thing they did when they entered the coalition was to betray the very voters who now ought to be flocking to their Remain banner. If someone lied to me and as a result I’ve ended up with £40,000 of debt I wouldn’t forgive them easily. That is exactly what the Lib Dems did to university students.
So it isn’t easy finding a political home these days. If only there was a political party that bravely opposed the Iraq war at the time. If only someone had stood out against austerity from the first and offered a better use for the £400 billion of quantitative easing money the UK has wasted. If only someone had a forward looking vision for the British economy based on the next phase of technology. If only someone understood the scale of the environmental challenge we face and was prepared to take radical action. If only there was a party that understood how flawed the EU was but still realised it was the best option on the table. That’s what I think we need right now. So I suggest that we all get behind something along those lines. We could call it The Green Party!