Brexit and bureaucracy: the cost of absurdity

Editorial, The Guardian

Conservatives continue 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


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