Some 280 days after British voters decided to leave the EU, the government has triggered Article 50.
Yesterday’s events involved the expected pomp and platitudes, but also some swift manoeuvring as politicians across the continent emphasised their priorities for upcoming negotiations.
The EU’s remaining member states must quickly agree on a unified picture of how they want Brexit to look. On this side of the channel the government has already set out its own vision, but the devil is in the detail – and that work starts today when a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill is unveiled.
While its name sounds like a dream to those of us who’d rather see less red tape wrapped around every segment of the economy, the bill holds no guarantee of a reduction in government interference.
Rather, its objective – essentially to replace EU laws with UK equivalents – has been described by a House of Commons report as “one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK”.
Aside from its ominous size, the bill is crucial because it is likely to become the battleground for numerous political factions, each desperate to shape the form that Brexit takes.
The move from EU laws to sovereign control will pose a series of real-life, practical policy dilemmas, the answers to which could determine whether we end up with a relatively “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
For example, to what extent do we want to keep EU labour market regulations? Some business leaders are keen for the working time directive to be scrapped, or at least pared back.
Yet in January’s landmark speech at Lancaster House, the PM pledged: “As we translate the body of European law into our domestic regulations, we will ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained. Indeed... we will build on them.” That doesn’t smell like a red tape bonfire.
More importantly, will the government, once free from the EU’s restrictions on state aid, and with more leeway to interfere in big corporate takeovers, look to bolster its industrial policy and edge the UK towards a more planned economy? This newspaper would certainly hope not.
It was a relief to hear business minister Greg Clark insist during a recent speech at Mansion House that the government’s industrial policy has more in common with the reforms leading to the 1986 Big Bang than it does to the failed efforts of pre-Thatcher administrations to “pick winners”.
Clark insisted the UK will become a “beacon of openness” post-Brexit, an economy that embraces free trade and encourages innovative young companies and disruptive industries. His vision sounds compelling. From today, we’ll start to see if it becomes a reality.