Looking Beyond Brexit

by Mark Walker
Mark Walker on policy isses beyond the Brexit.

Looking Beyond Brexit

To those outside the UK, it may appear that 2017 was a year dominated only by Brexit, with it hard to see how any time was made for other policy issues to get discussed in the UK. In fact, having had a minority Government since June, in many ways the power for MPs is already beginning to return to Westminster, and 2018 may be a time when we look beyond Brexit.

What does 2018 have in store?

Aside from Brexit, the fresh tips of promised new Green Papers on environmental issues and social care are beginning to emerge from the Government, as they aim to put into action some of their commitments made during the June 2017 election.

Green Brexit

A ‘Green Brexit’ has become the latest phrase that the Conservative Government are trying to get to catch on, fronted by Environment Secretary Michael Gove MP. For 2018, an Animal Welfare Bill is being proposed that will extend the maximum penalty from six months to five years and promises to go further in protecting animals as we leave the EU. After a popular BBC series, Planet Earth, captured the nations concern around plastic polluting our environment, the Government have responded with a 25-year plan to try to reduce unnecessary plastic waste. Theresa May has urged supermarkets to introduce ‘plastic-free’ aisles and extended the 5p charge of plastic carrier bags to all retailers in England. Together, these two policies form part of the Conservatives’ attempts to re-engage younger voters and produce ‘good news’ stories to promote a kinder face to the UK government.

Social Care Reform

2018 will see the Government publish a green paper on how they intend to offer support for an ageing population. They will want to tread carefully with their recommendations, as this policy nearly cost Theresa May the election in 2017, leaving many core Conservative voters fearful their party was abandoning them. 2018 has begun with the Health Minister, Jeremy Hunt, seeing his title expanded to include Health and Social Care in the latest Cabinet reshuffle. This is an early indicator that we can expect a more integrated reform being adopted that provides a long-term solution and works to reduce pressure on the NHS. 

Outside of Westminster?

For the devolved Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, 2018 is looking be the year they seek to assert their authority on Westminster and refuse to play ball with May’s Brexit plans. The Welsh Government is preparing a Continuity Bill that would seek to challenge the EU Withdrawal Bill and ensure that the powers held in devolved areas in Brussels would be transferred immediately to the National Assembly after Brexit, avoiding a power grab by Westminster.

In Scotland, a similarly adversarial line is being taken by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, with her continuing to call for the UK to stay in the Single Market to protect jobs and the economy. With a poor SNP showing in the 2017 General Election though, losing 21 of their seats, the prospect of a second referendum on independence seems to have gone away for now, with delivery on their domestic policy a priority.

A year has passed without an Executive sitting in Northern Ireland, with policy now lagging in key devolved areas. However, with Karen Bradley MP, the new Northern Irish Secretary in place, power-sharing talks are set to restart on Wednesday 24th January between all five of the main parties. Currently, the key areas of disagreement relate to the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the legacy of the Troubles. She has characterised these talks as a ‘last opportunity’ to find a resolution, noting that failure to do so would be a significant set back to the Good Friday Agreement. Having secured £1 billion in additional funding from the UK Government for a confidence and supply arrangement, there is a need to appoint devolved Ministers to Stormont so that they can be in charge with the administration of this money and not Westminster.

What does the Brexit time line look like?

Unsurprisingly though, British politics is looking to be dominated by the Brexit negotiations during 2018. After a stormy passage in the Commons, the EU Withdrawal Bill has now passed through to the House of Lords where the Government expects it to face strong opposition, with the majority of the Lords opposing Brexit and wanting to make amendments.

Liam Fox’s Trade Bill is running in tandem through the Commons, which seeks the power for the Government to negotiate and agree on trade deals once it has left the EU in March, 2019. This Bill will too face opposition from other political parties, as they see it as an attempt by the Government to carve out further powers for themselves away from the scrutiny of the UK Parliament.

As the public becomes weary of describing the turbulent nature of British politics to be ‘interesting’, here is to hoping that in 2018 the UK will begin to see some clarity on what life post-Brexit will be like. Only then is it likely that the political agenda will really have room for other policy issues to emerge.

2017 in Review

Last year will be regarded as one of political change across the UK, a time when the political map was redrawn and when the country entered a period of significant instability. Despite her earlier promises to the contrary, a snap General Election was called by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. On 19th April this was Election was ratified by the necessary super-majority in the House of Commons by 522-13 votes. May’s aim was clear, to deliver an increased Conservative majority to allow for the steamrolling of Brexit negotiations in Westminster.

However, when the election results were announced two months later, May found she had misjudged the mood of the nation as the UK faced a hung Parliament. Despite winning 42.4%, the Conservatives had lost their working majority and were left with 318 seats and reliant upon a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. Conversely, the Labour Party picked up an extra 30 seats from their total at the last Election in 2015, winning 40% of the vote in a surprise return to two Party politics in the UK. To the surprise of many, May stayed on as Prime Minister, with few envious of her task to deliver a successful Brexit. Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gained a new cult of younger followers – even making an appearance on the main stage at Glastonbury.

This had significant implications, both for the Conservatives and for Labour, with the Prime Minister significantly weakened and the Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, entering 2018 from a position of strength.

Elsewhere, there were developments in Northern Ireland, with the Assembly having been suspended since January last year. With Sinn Fein having walked out of Stormont, the Executive has been non-existent for the past 12 months. To fill this void, the annual budget was passed in Westminster last November, underlining the crisis. This is the result of a current impasse within the Stormont Assembly that continues to this day, with months of talks between the political parties to try and get it back up and running.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government has laid out plans to introduce an Organ and Tissue Donation Bill as part of the 2018 session in the Scottish Parliament. This comes after the SNP lost seats in the UK Parliament at the expense of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour during the June election. A turn away from the SNP by Scottish voters was caused both by a backlash against the SNP’s plans for a second Scottish Independence Referendum and their failure to deliver whilst in Government in Holyrood. With the Scottish Parliament beginning to diverge from the rest of the UK in terms of income tax rates, 2017 can be seen as a year in which MSP’s began to use their full range of executive powers.

In Wales, there have been calls for an increase in the number of Members in the Welsh Assembly as it gains increased powers in the area of taxation and in budget responsibility. This debate looks set to continue in 2018. 2017 also saw the Assembly pass a Bill to abolish a UK Government national flagship housing policy on Right to Buy, diverging from England.

The Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill was passed earlier in December indicates that the regions will take a different approach to the current housing crisis engulfing the UK. Again, like in Scotland, it can be said that 2017 marked a change with Wales deciding to distance itself from decisions made in Westminster and instead develop more localised policies that better suit them.

Lastly, the Autumn budget saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, deliver a widely praised Autumn budget. The measures announced included a substantial cut to the stamp duty charged on the purchase of homes by first time buyers, increased targets for the building of new homes and further rises to the basic rate of income tax. Money was also allocated for Brexit and the process of the UK leaving the EU in March, 2019, in a surprising move.

Brexit, of course, will continue to dominate the headlines and the political agenda in 2018 but it is also sometimes worth looking beyond that process as we saw in 2017.