In 2019 and 2020, the Conservative Party seemed to be brimming with ambition and ideas to not only deliver Brexit, but also bring about a radical transformation of the state. Buoyed by the success of the vaccine purchase program – not just a Brexit project, but a decidedly anti-EU project – Boris Johnson made explicit reference to the virtues of “regulatory competition” between Britain and Brussels when he announced the Brexit deal just before Christmas 2020 .
In 2021, a wave of reforms has been proposed to take immediate advantage of Brexit, ranging from financial services to drug regulation and gene editing. There was growing optimism that Britain would pursue a policy of competitive divergence outside the EU, finding benefits in a more nimble and flexible economy, able to combine regulatory reform with the world’s most ambitious trade policy.
Several projects have been launched to turn ideas into reality: a review of all existing EU legislation, the Task Force on Growth, Innovation and Regulatory Reform, supply-side reform campaigns with snappy names like “Project Ease” or “Project Speed “, and plans to use data-driven technology to create the “best border in the world” to prove the doubters wrong and show how Britain can have both frictionless and secure trade borders with the whole world, not just Europe .
Somewhere between then and now this energy has disappeared. Instead of vigorously chasing Brexit opportunities, the government is now a bit sheepish about it. Damage control, rather than exploring new horizons, is the mantra of the day. This is no doubt 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 recently said in these pages, the Conservative Party must be unequivocally the party of Brexit. It bears the responsibility of turning an idea into a constitutional reality, and it has won a huge electoral mandate to do so. But instead of pulling out all the stops to create every possible competitive advantage against the EU, to entrench the EU’s divergence so that independence cannot be weakened, or to reshape the state in the image of the vaccine task force to pursue growth and reform wherever possible, paralysis and fear now reign. The government plays into the hands of its adversaries and gives up all intellectual ground to survivors and returnees.
Last week, the Telegraph reported that Britain is facing a “cheese blockade” due to government plans to impose strict controls on imported food that are not a reality for the real risk. After more than two years in which Britons safely enjoyed their epoisses en comté, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has deemed it appropriate to require costly new forms for a host of everyday imported foodstuffs just a month before the Christmas rush later this year. Holes in the shelves in Waitrose and a leafy neighborhood’s favorite deli are the kind of Project Fear results that many mock, but are now being created by government policy. This is especially dangerous for ministers: Sir Keir Starmer is suggesting he will renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU and they are advocating for him.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is said to be considering rejoining the EU’s research programme, Horizon, despite it being common knowledge that he believed it was poor value for British scientists and taxpayers alike when he was Chancellor. The government has spent much of 2021 and 2022 developing an alternative that could compete with Horizon and its significant shortcomings – bureaucracy, ticking boxes, partnerships with poor European universities – but according to the Windsor Framework, we look poised to start again to join Horizon, spending UK money on foreign research programs rather than our own money. If true, this is a great missed opportunity to really do something special with the increases in research funding that the government has agreed to.
The less said about the descent of preserved EU law, the better. Ministers and their departments have been unable to use the sunset as an impetus for sweeping reforms, opting in their panic for only cosmetic, patchy changes. It is overwhelmingly likely that we will remain in the EU’s shadow, even after the efforts of Boris Johnson’s government to secure EU regulatory autonomy. Reforms to labor law, intellectual property, energy policy and planning that could have made the UK a more attractive place to invest and grow a business seem unlikely. Instead, more regulation awaits. This all feels like what my colleague Radomir Tylecote has called ‘cosmetic democracy’: whichever leaders voters choose, our entrenched bureaucracy ensures that they get the same left-wing, Europhile results.
The latest immigration figures reached record highs. Increasing numbers of voters are beginning to feel betrayed by a government that has botched its mandate. If the government is to learn from this month’s lack of local elections, it must note that voters are now short of patience and patience. The government’s steady approach has already failed. It threatens to show little of his time in office, endangering not only 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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