The Government is making the Remainers’ case for them



In 2019 and 2020, the Conservative Party seemed to be fizzing with ambition and ideas about not just making Brexit a reality, but delivering a radical transformation of the state. Buoyed by the success of the vaccine procurement programme – not just a Brexit project, but a decidedly anti-EU one – Boris Johnson explicitly referred to the virtues of “regulatory competition” between Britain and Brussels when he announced the Brexit agreement just before Christmas 2020.

A wave of reforms was proposed in 2021 to gain immediate benefits from Brexit, ranging from financial services to medicines regulation and gene editing. There was growing optimism that outside the EU, Britain was going to pursue a policy of competitive divergence, finding advantages in a more nimble and flexible economy, able to combine regulatory reform with the world’s most ambitious trade policy.

Multiple projects were established to turn ideas into reality: a review of all retained EU law, the Taskforce on Growth, Innovation and Regulatory Reform, supply-side reform drives with zippy names like “Project Ease” or “Project Speed”, and plans to use data-driven technology to create the “best border in the world” to prove doubters wrong and show how Britain could have both frictionless and secure trade borders with the whole world, not just Europe.

Somewhere between then and now, this energy disappeared. Instead of pursuing Brexit opportunities with vigour, the government is now slightly sheepish about it all. Damage limitation, rather than exploring new horizons, is the mantra of the day.  This is doubtless linked to the turbulent collapse of the Johnson and Truss ministries, but it is a dangerous place for the Conservative Party to find itself.

As Lord Frost said in these pages recently, the Conservative Party must be unequivocally the party of Brexit. It bears responsibility for turning an idea into a constitutional reality, and it won a huge electoral mandate with which to do it. Yet instead of champing at the bit to fashion every possible competitive advantage over the EU, to entrench divergence from the EU so independence cannot be diluted, or to refashion the state in the image of the vaccine taskforce to pursue growth and reform wherever possible, paralysis and fear now reign. The government is playing into the hands of its opponents, and ceding all of the intellectual ground to remainers and rejoiners.

Last week, the Telegraph reported that Britain faces a “cheese blockade” under government plans to impose stringent checks on imported food which bear no reality to the real-world risk. Following over two years of British people safely enjoying their epoisses and comté, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has seen fit to demand expensive new forms for a host of everyday imported foodstuffs, only a month before the Christmas rush later this year. Gaps on the shelves in Waitrose and a leafy neighbourhood’s favourite deli is the sort of Project Fear outcomes many derided, but which is now being created by government policy. This is especially dangerous for ministers: Sir Keir Starmer suggests that he will renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and they are making his argument for him.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is reported to be considering rejoining the EU’s research programme, Horizon, despite the fact it was well known that he believed it was bad value for British scientists and taxpayers alike while he was Chancellor. The government spent much of 2021 and 2022 developing an alternative which would have been able to compete with Horizon and its considerable flaws – bureaucracy, box-ticking, partnerships with poor European universities – yet following the Windsor Framework, we seem set to re-join Horizon, spending British money on foreign research programmes instead of our own. If true, this is a great missed opportunity to do something truly special with the increases in research funding that the government has agreed.

The less said about the climbdown on Retained EU Law, the better. Ministers and their departments have proven incapable of using the sunset as an impetus for significant reform, and in their panic they have opted for only cosmetic, piecemeal changes. It is overwhelmingly likely that we will remain in shadow alignment with the EU, even after the efforts made by Boris Johnson’s government to ensure regulatory autonomy from the EU. Reforms to labour laws, intellectual property, energy policy, and planning which could have made the UK a more attractive place to invest and grow a business seem unlikely to happen. Instead, only more regulation awaits. This all feels like what my colleague Radomir Tylecote has called “Cosmetic Democracy”: whichever leaders voters elect, our entrenched bureaucracy ensures they get the same Left-wing, Europhile outcomes.

The latest immigration figures reached record highs. Ever greater shares of the electorate are beginning to feel betrayed by a government which bungled the mandate it was given. If the government is to learn from this month’s pasting at the local elections, it should note that voters’ tempers and patience are now short. The government’s steady as she goes approach has already failed. It is in danger of having little to show from its time in office, imperilling not just the Conservative Party, but the whole concept of Brexit, as well.

Fred de Fossard is head of the British Prosperity Unit at the Legatum Institute

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