Brexit is creating a domestic policy black hole

Kate Andrews
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This artist's impression released 19 Feb
Desperate times call for bold, exciting measures (Source: Getty)

What is your most unpalatable policy proposal?

That was the question posed to me on Wednesday night at an impromptu drinks party.

It took me a few minutes to come up with the answer. Fortunate to have friends on the opposite side of the political spectrum (despite whatever Laura Pidock MP might say), I felt it was my duty to deliver an answer that was quintessentially “on the right”.

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I ended up falling back on a favourite go-to: that healthcare should be funded by government, but not run by government (a policy, I was sure to mention, that is highly controversial in the UK and nowhere else).

Other blasphemies spouted in the group included hiking the pension age, a 100 per cent inheritance tax, increasing air passenger duty, and – the headline debate – banning cars.

I can’t claim that in the moment any of us were able to deliver fully-costed proposals or transitional arrangements (though there was an inspired attempt to calculate the number of train carriages needed in a “no car” era).

But with relative ease, we were able to discuss new, radical, and controversial ideas that at least acknowledged – in an attempt to solve – the serious financial and demographic problems that face the UK in the years to come.

I’m sure today’s readers have been having similar conversations, if not throwing around a few radical proposals of their own. I’m significantly less certain, however, that the UK’s elected representatives have been doing the same.

Brexit negotiations are going to be at the centre of political discourse for years to come. There is no altering this; the once-in-a-generation decision to leave the EU immediately kicked unrelated domestic policy issues into the backseat. All leadership leverage is now going towards the negotiations with Brussels and EU member states.

This is to be expected. But there has been an onset of Brexit “tunnel vision” since the snap election. It is morphing from being the main item on the agenda to the only item on the agenda, and domestic issues that demand attention now are going almost wholly ignored.

Yesterday, the Times reported that “seven million patients are urged to leave unsafe GP surgeries” – yet another consequence of unaddressed failures within the NHS.

Such stories are now a frequent part of the news cycle, popping up weekly, if not daily. Yet somehow, unsubstantiated figures like the €20bn divorce bill are still the headline item in the Westminster village – despite being “old news” in any other circumstance.

Replace the NHS with housing, social care or wages, and it’s the same story. The issues affecting people’s day-to-day lives are not being given the attention they deserve.

Whether it be the Liberal Democrats (whose party conference earlier this week confirmed that they are veering towards becoming a single-issue campaign group), or the Conservatives (whose knock- back in June dismantled the party platform), a Brexit agenda will ultimately not be enough satisfy the public at large.

Labour is far more clued-up to the growing appetite for domestic reforms – and their grand promises of free tuition fees, infrastructure projects and welfare giveaways continue to go unchecked by parties which haven’t cottoned on to the push away from the status quo.

Desperate times call for bold, exciting measures. Ideally they’ll be “palatable” – but at the very least, just show us that the wheels are turning.

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