The perils of riding two horses

PoliticsatSurrey, Simon Usherwood |

As we move into the new phase of Brexit – ‘long Brexit’ as I find I’m thinking about it – it’s useful to cast an eye back on one of the more obvious difficulties that the UK government faced during 2020: trying to do two things at once. While this shouldn’t be in the same ballpark as an individual “walking and chewing gum”, there’s good reason to treat it as if it is. At the heart of it is the notion of opportunity costs and finite resources. Doing something (anything) means you can’t do something else, and using your capacities for one purpose ties them up should you want to use them for a different purpose. For a person, that’s very clear: I’m sure we can all think of people who try to juggle too much at once, often resulting in them being unable to properly achieve any one thing. Something’s gonna give, somewhere. With a state, this should be less of an issue. There are many individuals and (relatively) huge resources, with scope to increase these in a way that one person cannot. Indeed, states spend their time doing lots of things simultaneously. But even here, we can notice that in the usual run of things, there are priorities to be made and focus to be made. Governments typically concentrate their efforts on specific things, leaving the rest to tick over. And that gives us a clue as to the issue here. 2020 was not ‘the usual run of things’ but rather a highly atypical coincidence of two huge events: Brexit and Covid. Each alone would have represented a massive challenge for a government. In particular, each has had profound effects across public policy, the economy and society, and so could not be contained within the usual structures of government. Moreover, in each case there was a necessity to translate policy decisions into effective action by economic and social agents: businesses needed to change processes for importing and exporting to the EU; everyone needed to work to reduce transmission of the virus. This, in of itself, need not have been a problem, since the kind of policy and implementation in each case did not necessarily have to pull in different directions. Working for home is not incompatible with working out EORI numbers, for example. But problems of interaction did still occur. Firstly, the need for the highest-levels of government to be closely involved in both Covid response and negotiations on the future relationship meant that neither one had the undivided attention of those concerned. I won’t speak of the Covid side of things, but it was certainly evident that Number 10 took a somewhat erratic path through the negotiations. Notwithstanding their model of backloading the process to increase pressure on the EU to make concessions, the decision to introduce the Internal Market Bill reads like the product of a hastily-assembled gambit that wasn’t thought through at anything like sufficient length. Likewise, the historic unwillingness of Boris Johnson to get across the fine print cannot have been aided by the need to deal with the sharp rise of Covid cases in December, leaving him unable to provide anything more than emotional support to the negotiators in the room and making any political breakthrough in his discussions with Ursula Von Der Leyen or Charles Michel more convoluted. Secondly, the political choices made during 2020 increased the difficulty of the next steps. Central in this was the decision not to seek an extension to the transition period ahead of the June deadline: While it made sense in terms of the narrative of ‘getting Brexit done’, it ensured that the hot end of negotiations would occur during the already-anticipated second wave, and that there would be the economic disruption of the post-transition arrangements stuck on top of the economic disruption of Covid. Thirdly, the overlapping of the two events means that we enter 2021 with the conditions for increased dissatisfaction with the outcome of negotiations (again, I can’t speak on Covid, other than to note the relatively poor comparative performance on cases and deaths). Already in 2020 we saw the dangers of such disconnection and discontent: the rhetoric of the meaninglessness of the Withdrawal Agreement, followed by that Internal Market Bill, was the feeding ground for those who wish to propagate a framing of being stabbed in the back. The prospect of a UK Dolchstoßlegende opens up the prospect of not only continuing instability in EU-UK relations, but also scope for instability around the Johnson administration; an administration that has never looked the most robust, even with its big majority. The absence of scrutiny, let alone involvement in the formulation of the Trade & Cooperation Agreement means that the political threshold to reopen – or reject – it is relatively low. This might well have been a problem even without Covid – the ‘renegotiation’ of the Withdrawal Agreement by Johnson is a case in point – but again it is plausible to argue that riding both horses at once exacerbated the issue. Of course, we can’t always chose when things happen, but maybe when we can we should bear in mind that the more we can focus on one thing at a time, the better for all involved.