The government’s 108-page ‘Benefits of Brexit’ report is a breathless summary of what the government says it has delivered – or plans to – outside the EU. With the government’s policy agenda under scrutiny from disgruntled Conservative backbenchers, this document – released to mark the two year anniversary of the UK’s exit from the EU – is an attempt to show how much progress has been made on the promise to “take back control of our money, laws and borders.”
It is sweeping, lumping together significant policy shifts (like the introduction of a new immigration system and farm support regime) with small and tokenistic reforms (think blue passports and crown stamps on pint glasses). It also lists changes that have already happened (like the removal of VAT on sanitary products) alongside those that are still on the drawing board (like reform of financial services rules or the review of retained EU law). The government trawled departments in its search for the benefits of Brexit – and it shows. For example, it is a stretch to argue that plans to digitize some of the new red tape introduced by Brexit represent a shiny dividend.
The document also sets out a plan to reform how new regulation is stress tested – which includes setting out five new regulatory principles to guide departments when making new rules – and tries to map out the government’s future policy platform.
However, despite the breadth of the report, and some laudable ambition, it downplays the risks of leaving the EU – and struggles to define the government’s post-Brexit agenda. So while it may briefly lift the spirits of Conservative MPs, the long-term value of the “Benefits of Brexit’ report seem dubious.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the report is its breadth. Far from being limited to highlighting specific EU rules the government wants to change post-Brexit, it reads more like a summary of the government’s wider policy agenda. Levelling up and building back better get multiple references, and plenty of space is given over to things the UK could have done in the EU – such as setting a zero emission target for new cars, allowing marriage at sea and deploying the UK’s new aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal. Throwing so many aims and ambitions into one document also exposes some tensions and contradictions in government policies. For example, reducing Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights seems to cut across efforts to reduce emissions and deliver net zero.
This scope perhaps shows the lasting impact of former Brexit minister Lord Frost. He took a very broad view of the opportunities of Brexit that went far beyond finding specific EU laws he wanted to change. He wanted to use leaving the EU as a chance to reset how the UK regulates and encourage a ‘mindset’ shift in Whitehall, with the creation of his ‘Brexit opportunities unit’ in the Cabinet Office giving him license to take an interest in many areas of government policy. However, after Lord Frost’s departure the Brexit opportunities agenda has lost its dedicated Cabinet-level champion. It is hard, therefore, to see the unit making the headway Frost had in mind.
There are two ways to look at the benefits of Brexit. The first is to make principled arguments about regaining sovereignty and democratic accountability – fundamentally a political judgement. The second is to demonstrate that the benefits of exercising that greater autonomy outweigh the inevitable costs of severing 50 years of economic and political integration – benefits that even those opposed to the idea of Brexit could get behind. The paper is heavy on the first, but doesn’t do enough to demonstrate that the government’s plans will deliver the second.
A big missing piece is an acknowledgement that exercising post-Brexit freedoms may come at a price – which the proposed benefits must outweigh. Doing things differently could deepen trade barriers with the EU, cause problems for the operation of the UK internal market or trigger disputes with the EU under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. But the government fails to acknowledge these risks. Instead, there are only veiled references to diverging ‘where this is deemed beneficial’ and ‘keeping what works’ when looking for inherited EU rules to change.
In fact, there is a sense that the government may want to doing things differently just because it can – rather than because it is best on balance. One of these is ‘a sovereign approach’, which promises a ‘distinctive approach based on UK law’ – suggesting that things could be done differently for the sake of it. It is also not clear what should happen when these new principles clash. For instance, the UK can’t ‘lead from the front’ in all areas of policy, and ‘recognising what works’ may involve concluding that the UK is better off following EU rules – especially where the bloc sets the global standard. A nod to the need for ‘regulatory diplomacy’ at least suggests that the government knows the UK will not be able to go it alone in all areas of regulation.
This report is not short of hyperbole; the UK will have the ‘most effective border in the world’, be ‘the best place in the world for green and sustainable investment’ and be the ‘best regulated economy in the world’. There are plenty of ambitious plans too: adopting new technology at the border, reforming financial services regulation and recasting farm subsidies as payments for delivering largely environmental benefits.
The report’s broad framing is clearly an attempt to showcase the government’s policy agenda and illustrate to Conservative backbenchers that the government has a long-term policy agenda – beyond firefighting political scandals. But much of the report’s agenda has already been announced, or is still vague and ill-defined. There is little detail on how some of the ideas – like plans to reform data protection without undermining data sharing with the EU – will be achieved, or a sense of how the government will prioritise between its planned reforms. If the government’s ambition had to be summed up in a single phrase, it would be ‘we will be better’. That works as a slogan, but it isn’t much of a plan.