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3 February 2020

Boris Johnson says the UK will diverge. How seriously should we take him?

The government is continuing to sell the myth of “taking back control” to business. But this is a catchphrase designed to appeal to voters, rather than an economic reality.

By George Grylls

The head of a prominent trade body went to the Conservative Party Conference last year. Along with representatives of other industries, the individual was granted an audience with Michael Gove — the pivotal cabinet minister in the upcoming EU-UK negotiations. 

The industry heads asked Gove why the government was promising to diverge from EU standards when it was not in any sector’s interests. Gove replied that it was something the government needed to sell to voters before the general election. Come the new year, Gove assured them, the government would listen once again to business.

Today, Boris Johnson has given another speech in which he has once more preached – with the addition of some questionable ad hominems – the virtues of divergence. But despite the splendid setting of Greenwich’s Painted Hall, he should be ignored. The meeting that mattered, occurred last week when business leaders were summoned once again to a private audience with Gove.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in conjunction with chief negotiator David Frost, is heading up the 60-strong “Taskforce Europe” team based in the Cabinet Office. Civil servants have been recruited from across Whitehall to work in the government’s inner sanctum, but the reality is that most of the team have come straight from the symbolically disbanded DExEU – to the extent that many are still sitting at the same desks.

What happened at the meeting was worrying. One attendee left “confused and frustrated,” complaining that there were no longer any “voices of reason” in the cabinet now that it had been purged of more moderate figures such as David Lidington, Greg Clark and Theresa May. The whole meeting, they thought, was “a cynical attempt to keep business quiet”.

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The industry heads were told that they should get in touch with the relevant department for Brexit guidance (even though the Cabinet Office was co-ordinating negotiations). When they then rang up these departments, they found confused civil servants who had absolutely no idea about the shape of the future relationship. Meanwhile, in separate conversations with the relevant departments, they found a culture of silence. Civil servants who did understand the implications of divergence were not encouraged to inform ministers. Why? Because what they would have said would have been politically unpalatable. 

European regulations are the template for international trade in many sectors. In the case of manufacturing, it seems inconceivable that chemicals will not stick to REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), food and drink will not align with EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), aerospace will not adhere to EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and so on. For services, by contrast, there is more scope for divergence  – but that depends on whether or not the EU will continue to allow market access. At the moment, you would bet against that. So on both goods and services, divergence is economic fantasy.

But a government where the strings are being pulled by Gove alongside his former special adviser Dominic Cummings – both of whom carried out uncompromising reforms in education ten years ago – is unpredictable. For strategic purposes, unpredictability is an asset. Is divergence a bluff? Will we align at the last minute even if some fudge is found to save face? This sort of distraction covers for the fact that there is a breathtaking lack of detail. Debating whether or not we will diverge in the broadest sense is a fig leaf for the fact that these questions have not been addressed in relation to specific industries – on REACH, EFSA and EASA for example.

The government has not “taken back control”. It has concentrated power in the hands of a select few. They bear responsibility for the jobs, wages and livelihoods of the country.