It's too early for the Lib Dems to declare "victory"

The battle over Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms isn't over yet.

He may once have boasted that Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms were in the Liberal Democrat manifesto but Nick Clegg is still hailing their dilution as his biggest "victory" since the coalition began. The cause of such excitement is the publication by Steve Field, the GP who led the government's "listening exercise", of a report into the reforms, although most of the key changes were announced in David Cameron's speech last week. To summarise, the 2013 deadline for the creation of GP-led consortiums will be "relaxed"; membership of the consortiums will be opened up to hospital doctors and nurses, and the main duty of Monitor, the health regulator, will be to promote "integration", not "competition".

To the consternation of the Tories, Clegg has published a "scorecard" showing that the Lib Dems have secured 11 of the 13 changes demanded by its conference. In the Independent, a jubilant Shirley Williams declares that, thanks to her party's efforts, "the Prime Minister will be able to say with confidence that the NHS is safe in the Coalition's hands".

More cautious types are reminding the Lib Dems that the political wrangling isn't over yet. Clegg, Cameron and Andrew Lansley will issue their own response to the report at a joint event tomorrow, and the Tory right are using the intervening period to demand a limit to the concessions.

Then there's the question of NHS funding, a landmine primed to explode at some point in the near future. As I noted last week, Cameron is on course to break his pledge to increase spending on the health service - higher inflation means that it faces a real-terms cut. The coalition's NHS woes are far from over.

But it would still be churlish to deny that this is some of the best press the Lib Dems have had since the coalition was formed. The government's decision to "modify" its £26,000 benefits cap has already been successfully spun as another victory for Clegg's party. Whether the voters will give them any credit, however, remains to be seen.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.