In 2019 and 2020, the Conservative Party seemed to be sparkling with ambition and ideas not only to make Brexit a reality, but also to bring about a radical transformation of the state. Buoyed by the success of the vaccine supply scheme – not just a Brexit plan, but a decidedly anti-EU one – Boris Johnson explicitly spoke of the virtues of ‘regulatory competition’ between Britain and Brussels when he announced the Brexit deal just before Christmas 2020. .
A wave of reforms have been proposed in 2021 to reap immediate benefits from Brexit, ranging from financial services to drug regulation and gene editing. There was growing optimism that outside the EU Britain would pursue a policy of competitive divergence, finding benefits in a more nimble and flexible economy able to combine regulatory reform with political most ambitious business in the world.
Several projects have been put in place to bring the ideas to life: a review of all retained EU legislation, the Task Force on Growth, Innovation and Regulatory Reform, reform initiatives on the EU side offering with quick names like “Project Ease” or “Project Speed”, and plans to use data-driven technology to create the “World’s Best Frontier” to prove skeptics wrong and show how Great- Britain could have both frictionless and secure trade borders with the whole world, not just with Europe.
Somewhere between yesterday and today, that energy disappeared. Instead of vigorously pursuing the opportunities of Brexit, the government is now a little sheepish about it all. Limiting the damage, rather than exploring new horizons, is the mantra of the day. This no doubt has to do with the tumultuous collapse of the Johnson and Truss ministries, but it is a dangerous place for the Conservative Party.
As Lord Frost recently said in these pages, the Conservative Party must be unequivocally the party of Brexit. He bears the responsibility of turning an idea into constitutional reality, and he won a huge electoral mandate to do so. Yet instead of chomping at the bit to shape every possible competitive advantage over the EU, entrenching divergence from the EU so that independence cannot be diluted, or reshaping the state to he image of the vaccine task force to pursue growth and reform where possible, paralysis and fear now reigns. The government plays into the hands of its adversaries and cedes all the intellectual ground to the remainder and to those who join.
Last week the Telegraph reported that Britain is facing a “cheese blockade” under government plans to impose strict controls on imported food that does not match the real risk. After more than two years of Brits safely enjoying their country and county, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has seen fit to require costly new forms for a host of foodstuffs imported everyday, just a month before the Christmas rush later this year. The gaps on the shelves of Waitrose and a leafy neighborhood’s favorite deli are the kind of Project Fear results many scoff at, but are now created by government policy. This is particularly dangerous for ministers: Sir Keir Starmer suggests he will renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and they make his case for him.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is said to be considering joining the EU’s research programme, Horizon, despite being well known that he thought it was bad value for UK scientists and taxpayers when he was chancellor. The government spent much of 2021 and 2022 developing an alternative that could have rivaled Horizon and its considerable flaws – bureaucracy, tick boxes, partnerships with poor European universities – but after the Windsor framework, we seem ready to join Horizon, spending UK money on overseas research programs instead of our own. If true, this is a great missed opportunity to do something really special with the research funding increases the government has agreed to.
The less said about the fall of preserved European law, the better. Ministers and their departments proved unable to use the sunset as an impetus for significant reform, and in their panic opted only for cosmetic and piecemeal changes. It is extremely likely that we will remain aligned with the EU, even after efforts by Boris Johnson’s government to secure regulatory autonomy from the EU. The labor law, intellectual property, energy policy and planning reforms that could have made the UK a more attractive place to invest and grow a business seem unlikely to happen. Instead, only more regulation awaits. It all sounds like what my colleague Radomir Tylecote called “cosmetic democracy”: whoever the voters elect, our entrenched bureaucracy ensures they get the same leftist, Europhile results.
The latest immigration figures have reached record highs. Ever-increasing portions of the electorate are beginning to feel betrayed by a government that has failed in its mandate. If the government is to learn from this month’s failure in local elections, it must note that the tempers and patience of voters are now running out. The government’s consistent approach has already failed. He may have little to show since taking office, jeopardizing not just the Conservative Party but the whole concept of Brexit.
Fred de Fossard is Head of the British Prosperity Unit at the Legatum Institute
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