The humiliating Budget climbdown over National Insurance is being discussed in the traditional Westminster terms of who is up, who is down and who briefed what about whom.
In fact, ministers’ apparent failure even to realise that hiking Nics on the self employed was breaking a key manifesto tax promise raises a far more serious question. Namely, is this government sufficiently competent get the best deal for Britain in the hugely complex of withdrawing the UK from the European Union which can now formally begin with Royal Assent for the Article 50 bill?
It is worth putting into context just how complicated this is. Not only will the UK be negotiating with 27 different countries simultaneously, through the European Commission but also presumably directly through the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and others. The government has three simultaneous objectives. First it must agree to agree what the exit deal with the EU will involve – the so-called “divorce” settlement. Will the UK have to pay a bill, if so how much? Do we get any of the assets we have helped to fund over the years? Are there any agreements of which we want to stay part and are will this this be allowed? There is more than enough here to keep everyone occupied for the full two years.
Second, the UK is trying to negotiate a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. This will cover tariffs on different categories of good and services, passporting rights for the financial sector, customs checks, country of origin rules. This process normally takes years, for example the EU deal with Canada has taken seven years to get close to agreement, and Canada does far less trade with the EU than we do.
Finally, there is a team in the brand new Department for Exiting the EU that is looking at how UK law and policy is should change to accommodate the new arrangements. For example, if the UK leaves the European nuclear agency Euratom, then a whole new set of nuclear safety regulations in the UK will be needed. That would be replicated in scores of different sectors, given the multitude of different regulatory agencies related to the UK’s membership of the European Union.
Not only do these three strands of divorce, trade deal, and UK adjustment need to happen simultaneously, they are intrinsically interdependent. Even minor changes to one could significantly affect the other two.
So the process given the green light today will be extraordinarily difficult, the most complex in many generations of British governance. It would stretch to the limit even the most impressive administration.
Yet this is a government that does not seem even to realise what is in its own manifesto, and cannot keep an unusually thin Budget deal intact for even 24 hours after asking its MPs to approve it in a parliamentary vote.
Instead of pulling together for the task ahead, the teams around the Prime Minister and Chancellor are using terms like “economically illiterate” to describe each other. This Budget circus – and the alarming knowledge gaps displayed by Brexit secretary David Davis in his select committee appearance this week – has exposed just how far the government is from being fighting fit for Brexit.
Not only does the government appear administratively incompetent, the Budget row has shown it to be politically weak and unstable too.
While Theresa May is the PM, she is not in control of the direction of her government. The merest puff of hot air from the blowhards on her own backbenches or from the press can cause her to veer completely off course. A terrifying prospect when you consider the noises being made by the Tory backwoodsmen in the Commons.
They do not suggest themselves to be people who are sensitive to the complexity of the Brexit negotiations. They seem unlikely to accept the compromises that we will have to strike as we work our way through. As soon as details of the negotiations leak, as they inevitably will, Tory rightwingers will kick off and start furiously demanding a tougher line, throwing the carefully balanced talks into disarray.
A Prime Minister who is unable to stand up to the baying mob in her own party makes the worst-case scenario of leaving without a deal far more likely.
This formative period for Britain demands strength, clear thinking and consistency from government. Instead, the weakness, muddle and vacillation on display this week represents a clear threat to the nation’s future prosperity
If this Conservative government proves unfit, our country needs others to be bold enough to do what is necessary to provide the leadership that Britain needs. Sitting impotently by while this mess unfolds would inexcusably let down the future generations who will have to live with its consequences.