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Analysis

Brexit will gum up government for years

by Hugo Dixon | 20.03.2017

One of the  lesser known costs of Brexit is that the NHS, social care, regional development and a host of other national priorities will get neglected for years as ministers and parliament won’t have the bandwidth to focus on anything else. Insofar as the government does produce policies in these areas, there’s a risk that it will botch the job because of inadequate attention to detail – as it did with its manifesto-busting attempt to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed during the Budget.

It’s not just that Brexit will dominate British politics during the two-year Article 50 divorce process, which Theresa May plans to kick off later this month. For years afterwards, the government will be consumed with negotiating a new trade deal with the EU, cutting new trade deals with the rest of the world in part to replace the ones that will lapse when we quit the bloc, and deciding which bits of European regulation we want to keep and which we want to modify.

The act of parliament authorising the prime minister to trigger Article 50 is only the first of perhaps “10 to 15 new bills and thousands of pages of secondary legislation” parliament will need to pass before we quit the EU, according to a new report from the Institute for Government.

A report in the Times this month listed the following areas where legislation could be required: immigration, tax, agriculture, trade and customs regimes, fisheries, data protection, sanctions, EU migrants benefits, reciprocal healthcare arrangements, road freight, nuclear safeguards, emissions trading and the transfer of spending from EU funds to UK government departments. Just listing them is enough to make the mind boggle.

There’s also the oddly named “great repeal bill” – which will translate into UK law all the EU’s regulations on the point that we quit the bloc. The idea is that the government will then, at its leisure, pick and choose those bits that it wants to keep, those it wants to get rid of and those it wants to modify.

To stop parliament being totally gummed up for maybe a decade, the government plans to take so-called Henry VIII powers under which there would be only minimal parliamentary scrutiny of this process. How ironic that this massive power grab from parliament is planned as a response to the British people voting for a slogan to “take back control”.

But the damage to parliamentary scrutiny won’t be the only cost of this massive legislative burden. Brexit business will crowd out other the government priorities including May’s promise to create a “country that works for everyone”.

The prime minister was right to argue that the UK doesn’t work for everyone when she gave her first speech outside 10 Downing Street. Whole communities have been left behind as a result of technological change, globalisation and migration (most of it from outside the EU).

This, much more than specific complaints against Brussels, was the main cause of the Brexit vote – and these are the problems that government should be straining every sinew to solve. How tragic if it is so distracted – not to mention lacking in financial resources as a result of Brexit-induced austerity – that it fails to do the job.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe