Andrew Vine: Government left paralysed in grip of Brexit freeze

The Government and Parliament have ground to a halt because of Brexit.
The Government and Parliament have ground to a halt because of Brexit.
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IT isn’t only the ground that’s frozen solid as winter bites, but the entire workings of the Government which is failing to address anything apart from Brexit.

The paralysis affecting every area of policy apart from leaving the EU was outlined to me last week by a senior official in one of the highest-spending departments.

Theresa May is presiding over political paralysis, argues Andrew Vine.

Theresa May is presiding over political paralysis, argues Andrew Vine.

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He has 30 years’ experience as a civil servant and has never seen anything like it. Departments across Whitehall are so fixated by the problems presented by Brexit that they have effectively ceased to deal with anything else.

So have their ministers. The politics of Brexit has become so all-consuming that departmental matters take second-place to the survival of the Government and the Tory factional infighting between leavers and remainers, all underscored by the endless mutterings about who will eventually replace Theresa May.

This is no way to run a Government, let alone the country. The paralysis in decision-making has crept over departments over the past two years, and has now reached the point where little of consequence is getting done unless it concerns Brexit.

Staff are being shuffled from place to place to cope with the logistics of what may – or may not – happen, tied up with contingency planning for possible shortages if a no-deal Brexit results in problems or delays at ports.

But this is really not achieving very much because the staff concerned have to get to grips with departments and complicated issues they are unfamiliar with before they even begin to work effectively.

As a picture of an almighty mess in which nobody really knows for sure what is happening, it takes some beating.

The official who painted it for me works with businesses to promote growth and employment. It irks him that he is unable to answer their questions about what lies ahead, whether concerning help the Government will be able to give companies, or any firm indication of future policy.

He isn’t being evasive in not answering. He doesn’t know. Nor do his superiors. And when he’s asked his relevant ministers, they don’t know either.

And that makes him very uneasy, because the companies who are asking questions with increasing urgency need answers in order to plan for the future. In some cases that means planning for years ahead, and for all it means the livelihoods of themselves and their employees.

Politicians may spout about what businesses need, but it is officials like him, in day-to-day contact with them, who have a much better understanding of the realities, and the message he’s hearing is that companies are worried.

The current paralysis in the Government is by no means the end of it. However Brexit plays out, irrespective of whether Britain leaves the EU with a deal or not, the uncertainty is going to continue for months or maybe years afterwards.

Civil servants are still going to be shuffled about to cope with the ramifications. Add to that the possibility of a general election, or perhaps a Tory leadership contest if Mrs May steps down, and the sense of the country drifting without clear direction or clarity of purpose becomes even worse.

The irony of the current state of affairs is that Brexit was supposed to be about taking control of Britain’s destiny and setting out a clear direction.

Last week’s cancellation of the Commons’ February recess was an acknowledgement of how far the country has moved from that ideal into a last-minute scramble to achieve an orderly exit from the EU. The list of challenges facing the Government demands attention, but is not receiving any.

The only notable policy announcement of recent months has been the 10-year plan for the NHS, but even that was delayed, and the suspicion must be that it was introduced to fend off Labour criticism of the Government’s record on health that might resonate with voters in the event of an election.

There is still no sign of the promised Green Paper on social care, one of the most pressing issues the country faces, which is slowly bankrupting councils struggling to look after vulnerable people.

Universal credit is a fiasco, crime is on the increase, large parts of the road and rail network are inadequate and high streets are in a spiral of decline.

Yet nothing is being done to address these matters. In the official’s words, Government departments are at best “ticking over”, only giving full attention to their remits in the event of a crisis arising.

This is not the fault of the departments concerned, but of their political masters who are effectively failing in their duty. The worry has to be that when attention is finally turned to domestic issues, they will be that much worse, and harder to address, because they have been neglected for so long.