to obsess about the burden to business of red tape, except where it is real –
at the EU border
Among the various grievances that led to Britain’s departure
from the European Union,
resentment of worker protections was not dominant for most voters. But it was a
point of urgency among many Conservative MPs, for whom freedom to deregulate
was the purpose of Brexit.
That is what they meant by regaining sovereignty: emancipation from rules that, in
Eurosceptic demonology, suffocate enterprise and limit prosperity. In that
ideological conception, a successful Brexit is one that casts off the
bureaucratic shackles as soon as possible.
But Boris Johnson has
reasons to hesitate. His parliamentary majority is dependent on former Labour
voters who do not embrace classical Tory faith in the free market free-for-all.
On the contrary, many of those “red wall” voters are driven by insecurity that
pushes in the opposite direction – against the sink-or-swim ethos of globalised
capitalism. They want protection.
There is a contradiction between the demands of Mr Johnson’s
new electoral base and his party’s most cherished beliefs. That tension has
emerged this week in government contortions around a review being conducted by the business department into labour laws.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, denies that the review will lead to
lower standards, insisting that the government’s ambition is enhancement of
rights. The policy focus of the review is reported to be the regulation of
hours (the working time directive much despised by Eurosceptics), holidays
and rest breaks. As a committed Thatcherite from the “enterprise group” of MPs,
Mr Kwarteng’s instinct towards those rules is unlikely to be to tighten. Mr
Kwarteng has played down the departure from the EU working time model on the
grounds that many member states exercise their right to opt out.
In so doing, he unwittingly underlined one of the futilities
of Brexit. EU
membership did not prevent the UK from having the continent’s most liberal
labour market. The idea that new vistas of prosperity open up with yet more
aggressive deregulation is a symptom of ideological monomania. It will do
nothing to boost productivity, upgrade skills or cultivate long-term investment
in the workforce and innovation, which most experts see as the central
challenges for Britain’s economy.
Post-Brexit, a familiar path beckons for Britain, wooing
foreign capital with tax breaks and cheap labour, but that is not a model to deliver
any of what was promised to Mr Johnson’s newly recruited voters. Too
drastic a movement away from EU standards would also provoke retaliation from
Brussels under level playing field provisions in the Brexit deal. But with
access to European markets already curtailed by the deal, the reflex to chase a competitive advantage at the expense of standards will be
hard for many Conservatives to resist.
The real tangle of red tape is now at the EU border, where
Brexit imposes cumbersome new procedures. The cost is already being paid, as
fish and other animal products rot before they can be cleared for continental
markets. The drag on growth is inevitable. There were warnings, but leavers
dismissed them as scaremongering. Ministers now hardly dare admit that such
problems exist. The tragedy – and the absurdity – of the situation is that Mr
Johnson will feel compelled to indulge the rhetoric of releasing business from
a burden of imagined bureaucracy to avoid taking responsibility for the real
burden, imposed by him. The prime minister will indulge policies based on
ideological fiction, because he turned his back on economic facts several years
ago. Wed 20 Jan 2021
UK and EU in row over
bloc’s diplomatic status
A diplomatic row has broken out between the UK and EU over
the status of the bloc’s ambassador in London. UK is refusing to give Joao Vale
de Almeida the full diplomatic status that is granted to other ambassadors. The
Foreign Office is insisting he and his officials should not have the privileges
and immunities afforded to diplomats under the Vienna Convention. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High
Representative for Foreign Affairs, has written to the Foreign Secretary
Dominic Raab, to express his “serious concerns”: