While Theresa May fights her Brexit battles, no one is running the country

Nothing is happening.

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Remember that thing called policy? It seems like an eccentric old concept, doesn’t it? Something politicians used to do in the olden days – antiquated practices like proposing new ways of running certain aspects of the state, debating and voting on bills about domestic affairs, and government departments announcing fresh initiatives and different ways of doing things. How quaint.

If it sounds like a world away, that’s because MPs have spent so much time on Brexit legislation – and extracurricular Brexit battles, such as the Conservative Party’s confidence vote on Theresa May’s leadership this week – that domestic policy debates have fallen by the wayside.

Let’s look at the numbers. At first, they disguise the problem: the government has introduced 45 bills to parliament in this parliamentary session so far, which is pretty normal: the last two-year session in 2010-12 had 47 bills. Of these, only nine have been Brexit bills, according to a tally by senior researcher at the Institute for Government’s Dr Alice Lilly.

“Just in terms of sheer numbers and quantity, the volume of legislation the government is bringing before parliament isn’t really that different to what we’ve seen before,” she tells me. “Most of what the government has been legislating for are things other than Brexit.”

But when you look at the content of these bills, that’s when you see a government trapped in an unproductive stasis since the last election. Leaving Brexit aside, there’s the routine legislation – finance bills, and laws called supply and appropriation bills that authorise government expenditure – plus Northern Irish acts since the executive at Stormont dissolved early last year. But then… there’s very little else to suggest this government is actively running the country.

We have seen social changes, like the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill introduced last December – but this came as a response to concerns of campaigners and opposition politicians over the government’s controversial Housing & Planning Act in 2016. And the Data Protection Act – but this was partly about applying the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the UK, and transposing the EU Data Protection Directive into domestic law.

There’s also the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2017-19, which hasn’t yet passed – this is very much in May’s image of policy making, and was at the fore of the public agenda following terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park.

Then there are laws that are significant in their own fields – the Smart Meters Act, the Space Industry Act, the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Act, the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act – but which don’t really symbolise a government with a coherent domestic agenda.

“They’re not really the kinds of things you’d expect of a government that’s at the beginning of a new parliament,” says Dr Lilly. “In the first session of a new parliament, you’d expect a government to bring forward its big-ticket items, perhaps see bills of big constitutional significance, or bills relating to public service reform, that kind of thing. And that’s not what we’re seeing.”

For example, the first session of the coalition government in 2010-12 saw the Academies Act, overhauling the structure and ideology of education in the UK; the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act, giving the Office for Budget Responsibility legal status; and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which – as we’ve seen in recent weeks – transformed how governments and MPs approach calling elections and no-confidence votes.

“Those are more the kinds of public service reform, or constitutional reform, that you may expect to see in the first session of a parliament,” says Dr Lilly.

Brexit isn’t solely to blame for this situation – at least, not directly. Following the 2017 election result, we have had a minority government – making parliamentary arithmetic an obstacle to passing controversial or flagship reforms.

Major pledges in the Conservative Party’s 2017 manifesto – such as bringing back grammar schools, scrapping free school lunches for all infants, the controversial social care funding shake-up, and prison reforms – didn’t make it into the Queen’s Speech in June 2017, setting out the legislation programme for the session.

However, you could say Brexit is still at play here – since it was what led to Theresa May calling the snap election, which hobbled her domestic plans, in the first place.

“It [the government] doesn’t have political capital to do anything outside of Brexit that might be very contentious,” says Dr Lilly. “The government has been quite reticent to do anything that it could be defeated on. And up until last week, it was actually quite successful in that. I think it was only defeated twice before last week, but obviously it’s now five times.”

Brexit distraction can also be seen beyond the Commons chamber. The Domestic Abuse Bill, promised by May and long-awaited by women’s groups, campaigners and lawyers, has yet to be introduced – slow progress and lack of recent updates suggest it’s taken a backseat.

The public consultation on the Bill ended on 31 May 2018. The spirit of the legislation, set to provide the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, is also contradicted by other government departments (for example, single household payments under Universal Credit put women in danger, and cuts to women’s refuges).

The green paper on adult social care has been repeatedly delayed, and still hasn’t appeared. First announced in the March 2017 Budget, there was no further news on it until November that year, when the government said it intended to publish it the following summer.

This summer came and went, with no sign of the new plan to address this country’s biggest public service funding crisis – except an announcement in June that it had been pushed to “autumn”. In October, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said in his Budget simply that it would be published “shortly”. The government today confirmed that it’ll be delayed until next year.

Pressing social crises are being ignored, neglected and delayed while frustrated civil servants watch their ministers plotting, resigning, or considering their positions. The new cabinet secretary and Head of the Civil Service, Mark Sedwill, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee this week that, “Some departments have paused some of their other domestic policy agenda in order to focus their attention on planning for 29 March”.

Not only does this mean deepening cracks in the public realm: it’s making Britain more precarious at a time when it will need all the strength it can muster to cope post-Brexit.

UPDATE

The Guardian reports that the long-term plan for how to fund the NHS, using the extra £20.5bn "birthday present" announced by the government this year, has been delayed until January because of Brexit.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.