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If It Wasn't for Brexit, We'd Have These Useful New Laws

Brexit has sucked all of the air out of politics – but what does that actually mean for passing legislation and getting stuff done?

by Mark Wilding
14 October 2019, 10:00am

(Zefrog / Alamy Stock Photo)

In May of 2016, David Cameron pledged to the world that the UK would be a global leader in tackling corruption. An an international summit in London, the then-prime minister announced plans to create a register of all foreign companies owning UK property – a world first.

"If you don't know who owns what, you can't stop people stealing from poor countries and hiding that stolen wealth in rich ones," Cameron said. "We want to clean up our property market and show that there is no home for the corrupt in Britain."

Campaigners had been calling on the government to tackle this issue for years. Ava Lee, senior anti-corruption campaigner at Global Witness, says: "The UK's property market is being used by criminals and corrupt politicians around the world to stash and launder dirty money. There are 10,000 anonymously owned properties in Westminster. The government has no idea who owns 10,000 properties in just one borough!"

For Lee, Cameron's announcement marked a major breakthrough. Unfortunately, her sense of optimism was short-lived. "We all know what happened in the months that followed that," she says.

Six weeks after Cameron’s landmark anti-corruption speech, Britain voted to leave the EU. Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, remained publicly committed to a property ownership register, and campaigners still hoped it would be introduced within a year. But more than three years after Cameron's commitment, a bill to enact the register has still not been laid before Parliament. Lee believes Brexit is to blame. "This is a bit of legislation that's pretty straightforward," she says. "It has just taken years and years."

This is the reality of politics in the age of Brexit. The Registration of Overseas Entities Bill is just one of many pieces of legislation or political commitments that have stalled and fallen by the wayside as Brexit has diverted time, money and attention away from all other political issues.

"Major issues of domestic policy, such as how to deal with the social care challenge, have been pushed to the sidelines," says professor Iain Begg, research fellow at the London School of Economics. Lawmakers have expressed their frustration with this legislative inertia. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas recently wrote: "Brexit has sucked all the political oxygen out of government, leaving a sense of policy paralysis."

Brexit's impact on government business is difficult to quantify, but the figures we do have are staggering. More than two-thirds of all staff employed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are reported to be working on Brexit. In July, the government announced an extra £2.1 billion to help government officials plan for a no-deal Brexit, taking the total to £6.3 billion. To use a typical tabloid benchmark, that's enough cash to pay the salaries of 10,000 nurses for more than 20 years.

That's just the civil service. What about Parliament? Analysis by the Institute of Government suggests that, on the surface, business has continued as usual. During the 2017-19 parliamentary session, the think-tank estimates that only a fifth of time in the House of Commons was spent discussing Brexit. In addition, it says 50 bills have been passed in that time; a comparable number to previous sessions, only six of which were Brexit-related. But it's the nature of those non-Brexit bills that matters. Recently passed bills have concerned smart electricity meters and the protection of circus animals. Important, sure, but a long way from major societal change. Dr Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, says: "It's fair to say that all the stuff the government has passed not related to Brexit has been relatively limited in ambition."

Lilly sees this as a consequence of both Brexit and the 2017 election, which produced a minority Conservative administration with little chance of driving through ambitious or controversial reforms. "On top of that, the government knew it was going to have to get this raft of Brexit legislation through Parliament and it wasn't going to be easy," she says. "As a minority government they have fairly limited political capital and are vulnerable to being defeated. My sense is they decided outside of Brexit they would limit their ambition in order to save their political capital for that Brexit legislation."

Boris Johnson claims to want to pursue a series of non-Brexit policy initiatives as soon as Britain has left the EU. A spokeswoman for No. 10 says that Monday's Queen’s Speech will "bring forward a new bold and ambitious legislative agenda", adding: "We will get Brexit done by the 31st of October and move the country forward so we can focus on people's priorities, such as the recruitment of 20,000 more police officers, more funding for schools and making sure people see more investment in the front line of our NHS."

The government wants us to believe that Brexit is an unavoidable administrative hurdle – an inconvenience that must be dealt with before Johnson can get on with the important business of running the country. But while he has promised to be bold and ambitious, just a few weeks into his leadership, he has already lost his political capital. He has no working majority, a 100 percent record of Commons defeats and no sign of a resolution to the Brexit impasse.

And in any case, who really believes that exiting the EU without a deal will leave the government free to focus its energy elsewhere? A no deal would mean all our political energy would be focused on the consequent chaos and attempts to get a deal.

An election seems certain in the coming months, and plenty more promises will be made. The state of British politics means most of them will be empty. Brexit's impact on Westminster will stretch way beyond even the protracted process of actually leaving the EU. It has divided the two main parties, locked the prime minister in conflict with Parliament and made the prospect of a majority government look increasingly unlikely. British politics has rarely been so dramatic or entertaining. But when is anything going to get done?

@mark_wilding

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Politics
David Cameron