Walking the Brexit tightrope is diverting attention – and resources – away from everything else, and the strain is tearing the British political family apart.
Forget the cliché “a week is a long time in politics”. The best phrase for our current chaos is the old feminist slogan: “The personal is political”.
Decision-making (or lack thereof) in the House of Commons since the EU referendum has been shaped as much by private angst as ideology or party discipline.
As members of parliament grapple with contradictory instructions from all corners – the whips, their party membership, constituents, local business owners and their own gut – paralysis is usually the result.
Every single MP faces this stultifying tangle, including the Prime Minister. When I was out reporting in Theresa May’s remain-backing constituency of Maidenhead recently, one resident said to me: “She should be working for me, not for Brexit.”
This is partly why there are so many small, majority-lacking factions for different visions of Brexit in the commons – they can’t rally round one solution because everyone has different interests to balance.
The local level
Constituency concerns play a big role. Whether it’s company headquarters, multinational outposts, factories, small business owners or freelancers, local business can impact hugely on an MP’s Brexit stance.
This was clear to me in Crewe & Nantwich, a leave-voting area of Cheshire, where its Labour MP Laura Smith (hanging in there with a wafer-thin majority of 48) told me frankly: “From the conversations I’ve had with employers and businesses here, they do not want a no-deal Brexit. It’s a very different story if you go and knock on doors. There are an awful lot of people who do want that.”
She’s had to resign her shadow frontbench job and rebel to try and please her residents and those driving her local economy. It’s an agonising tightrope, which many of her colleagues across the house are also treading.
This aspect of Brexit affects business in ways often overshadowed by the usual headlines about the City of London, the pound, foreign investment and car manufacturing.
For example, many places that voted leave did so because of decades of underinvestment. As this status quo continues and worsens, locals looking to start up an enterprise, or businesses seeking to expand, withhold investment or job creation from the places that need it most.
Shuttered shop fronts lead to more shuttered shop fronts. Back to Crewe, its town centre – lined with rows of closed units – is in desperate need of investment, but its voters are telling their MP they want the most economically risky version of Brexit. The tightrope wobbles.
This impossible balance infects party policy. Government ministers, civil servants and the shadow cabinet teams are absorbed by Brexit. To use a word beloved of officials, there’s just no “bandwidth” for much else while the deadlock continues.
Policymakers on both sides privately admit other plans are falling by the wayside. There is also less media oxygen for new policy announcements, further demoralising those attempting them while Brexit chaos reigns.
The social care crisis
The most extreme example of this is the government stalling on the biggest and most crippling funding crisis facing England today: adult social care. In the March 2017 Budget, a green paper was announced, looking into a new funding model. This was also a promise in the Conservatives’ 2017 election manifesto.
Scheduled to be published that summer, it has been delayed eight times by my count. The most recent government utterance is that it will be published “at the earliest opportunity” – watered down from its previous line earlier this year of “the first opportunity in 2019”. This is even vaguer than the health and social care secretary Matt Hancock saying in January that he intended it for April.
The human impact is clear, as is the effect on businesses. Local authorities, legally obliged to fund social care, have their resources sucked from everything else they do – making places with the most cuts less attractive to investors and people who would otherwise have stayed to start a business.
A personal and political problem
On the Labour side, there’s still no sign of their alternative to the government’s new welfare system, Universal Credit. During the most recent rumours of another general election, party staffers were concerned that their welfare offer is nowhere near being finalised in time for a campaign.
The government has failed to bring in big-ticket domestic legislation, on a level with, say, the coalition’s Academies Act that overhauled education, or the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which saw a constitutional transformation, in 2010–12.
Minority government and internal division are factors. Yet the endless late-night votes and media rounds demanded by Brexit – plus the heightened security, death threats and toxic atmosphere it has unleashed – means politicians and their staff, plus civil servants, don’t have the time to dedicate to policy. How could they, when they don’t even have time to see their families?
It’s a personal problem as well as political, and it will affect all of us – including those who want to build and grow their own businesses – personally.