I’m making progress, I think. Last autumn, around 80% of my working day was consumed with Brexit. In fact, Brexit was consuming me – almost all of me. I became so sick of talking about it my political neurons were caught in a negative feedback loop that never seemed to end.
Bad enough for me – even worse for those inside the government machine living with it day-in, day-out. The other week, I was having breakfast with a No 10 insider who neatly characterised that ‘loop’: “Inside the machine we see a familiar pattern. We have an EU summit and it goes rather well. The last three have gone much better than all the pundits and geeks would ever have predicted,” he said.
“We then have about a month of utter calm when politics and business and markets seem to think we are getting a better Brexit. Then we have about another six weeks of people throwing their toys out of the pram – whether in the UK, in Brussels, in Dublin, or elsewhere. Then the calm starts to emerge again before the summit and all is sweetness and light.”
But despite the ‘loop’, I’m feeling a lot happier now. At present, Brexit takes little more than a third of my working day. I call that progress. The problem is that while business has got on with its planning, and markets have priced in all but the most negative of outcomes, the machinery of government is utterly clogged up.
The constant refrain I get from major investors is: “Does the UK government actually want to do anything other than Brexit?” From MPs this is reflected: “I would actually like to be able to go and pass some legislation,” said one.
Of course, the reason that the government can’t do very much is not just Brexit. The 2017 general election meant that the government doesn’t have a working majority without the support of the DUP. And it’s a pretty slim majority at that.
When I’m in the US and in Asia, investors have been keen to ask ‘what does the UK want to be?’
But there is a bigger question, which is held up by Brexit and the government’s lack of majority. Namely, what kind of country does the UK want to be? Open and outward, or closed in almost every sense. The contours of that debate were right across the slim majority for the UK to leave the EU back in 2016 but the big question has not resolved itself in our politics and therefore in our parliament.
Let’s take a few of the big investment opportunities where investors continue to cry out for government answers.
Airport capacity. It’s nearly three years since Sir Howard Davies sent his report to the then-Cameron government recommending expansion at Heathrow. We all know the airport has been maxed out on capacity for over a decade.
The latest prediction for the earliest that a new runway can be approved is 2021, and it will then not be up and running until 2025 at the very earliest.
Next up, energy markets. There is a whole lot of pent-up demand to invest in energy markets – and not just nuclear. But government seems unable to move the dial on the policies to make this happen. In fact, the UK’s energy needs are now often running like Heathrow – close to capacity. Investors are crying out for the opportunity and energy users are rightly nervous about secure supplies.
Take social care, too. Rightly identified as a huge problem for millions of Britons, the debate took place in the wrong way during last year’s election. Rather than exciting investors, it scared them off – just as it scared off the voters, too. On house building everything just appears far too timid in terms of ambition.
But there are stirrings in government that we might actually be able to get on with this. Heathrow should get approval from most MPs later in the year. On social care, Jeremy Hunt wanted those exact words – ‘social care’ – written into his job title back in January during the reshuffle. In the long summer space between EU summits, I am expecting Hunt to unveil some new thinking on the subject and to try to drive a new policy. If he gets it right, this will also drive some headlines for his own future leadership hopes.
When I’m in the US and in Asia, investors have been keen to ask ‘what does the UK want to be?’ ‘Tell me about the opportunities ahead’? Fair questions. Politicians now really do need to get on with the job of providing some answers.
Follow Iain Anderson on Twitter @iain_w_anderson