Since entering Downing Street nearly 14 months ago, Theresa May has repeatedly promised to “make a success of Brexit”.
The Prime Minister, who enjoys an excessively-repeated mantra, most recently put the phrase at the centre of her plea for MPs to back the EU repeal bill, urging parliamentary colleagues over the weekend “to help Britain make a success of Brexit and become that great global country we know we can be.”
It is a noble aim, but too often the government’s rhetoric is removed from the reality of its actions – or lack thereof.
Yesterday’s data reflecting a further slowdown in UK growth should be a wake-up call to May’s administration. The service sector, which dominates Britain’s economy, is expanding at its weakest rate in nearly a year, according to widely-respected IHS Markit figures.
The survey could hardly be more ominous: “The overall level of optimism remained subdued, mainly linked to Brexit uncertainty, close to levels that have previously been indicative of the economy stalling or even contracting.”
Economists say business investment remains sluggish as firms are left to guess what post-Brexit Britain will look like, while a weakening pound continues to squeeze household budgets.
So what can the government do, especially while entangled in complex Brexit negotiations?
Firstly, it must demonstrate that it recognises the importance of Britain's services by publishing a convincing plan for the sector's prosperity outside the EU. One hundred and sixty days have passed since May triggered Article 50, yet we are still waiting for any kind of indication on the government’s plans for the broader services sector or London's world-famous financial industry in particular.
Secondly, it must show far more clarity and conviction over the type of transition period that can prevent a cliff-edge scenario in March 2019. City law firm DLA Piper set alarm bells ringing yesterday by arguing that a clause in the government’s EU withdrawal bill could scupper any kind of transitional deal with Brussels. Also yesterday, Miles Celic, head of Square Mile trade body TheCityUK, repeated calls for “urgent clarity” on a plan to reach a deal “by the end of this year at the very latest to avoid [big financial firms] activating their contingency plans”.
Thirdly, it needs to ensure every part of its Brexit plan is targeted towards growth and opportunity. A Home Office paper on potential post-Brexit migration rules, leaked last night, fails this test. Its plan to impose the responsibility of migration checks on companies, backed with the threat of criminal sanctions, points to a government heading in completely the wrong direction.
For Brexit to become a success, it needs to dramatically change course.