Come on, Nick. Seize the day

It's now up to the Lib Dem leader to kill the health bill.

Ed Miliband nearly got it right twice last week.

First he said the NHS Bill was going to be the Tories' new Poll Tax. Then he said the same bill could become another tuition fees debacle for the Lib Dems.

You can almost feel him groping for the right political analogy. He knows it's there, just eluding his grasp. So let me help him out.

Ed, you need to jam those thoughts together. The NHS Bill is going to be the Tories' tuition fees fiasco.

We know a bit about how this works in the Lib Dems. You make some promises. You associate yourself personally with those pledges. You even start running advertising assuring everyone that everything is safe in your hands. And then, when you're in power, you do the complete opposite. And the electorate crucify you for it.

Admittedly this has taken a little longer to pin on the Tories. I wrote a year ago, when reforms were first introduced, that this would happen and have been bemused ever since that folk haven't been more livid that the promise of "no top down reorganisations of the NHS'" appears to have been a bit of a fib. Especially when the likes of Andrew Mitchell go on the BBC and assert (as he did yesterday) that Andrew Lansley had been planning this for 5 years in opposition. (Given how things are panning out, I use planning in the loosest of terms).

I guess when, generally speaking, the country has such a low expectation of a Conservative politician keeping a promise, it takes longer for the anger to really sink in than it did for us Lib Dems, for whom people really did have higher hopes.

Which brings me to the little matter of redemption.

A couple of weeks ago it looked like Cameron was going to seize the day, drop the NHS bill, fire Lansley, and paint himself as the man who saved the NHS. There was an open goal there. For some reason he didn't take it. Who knows - maybe he really does believe in the reforms. Wouldn't that be a turn up?

Anyway, Cameron welded himself firmly to the Bill. Which means there is a vacancy going for a political leader willing to grasp the nettle, kill the bill and save the NHS. Ed Miliband would love to take it. But he of course, has no power. No, it needs someone who could actually stop the Bill, negotiate some sensible compromises with the Tories and Labour - everyone agrees some changes would be a good thing - and go some way to restoring the faith of a nation in their political acumen. And their principles.

Hey, Nick. Carpe Diem.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.