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04 January 2019

Singapore, chlorinated chicken and immigration: what will life after Brexit look like?

This article was first published on HuffPost

The debate continues in the same style – over personalities and power, not the substantive challenges that face the country. Something will have to change in 2019.

The biggest unresolved challenge facing the Government is not the Brexit deal, and whether Parliament will accept it, but what comes after it.

What is the future we can all look forward to? The clichés about buccaneering, trade deal securing and reclaiming our place in the world will very quickly need to be replaced by detailed policies designed to secure social and economic improvements, and possibly environmental ones as well. We are ‘taking back control’ but to do what…?

This is where the debate among cabinet ministers is getting very confused with their leadership ambitions. Most recently, Jeremy Hunt has been praising Singapore and claiming that we ‘can learn’ from it. Brexiteers seems to like its low tax, low regulation approach but it is not clear that others who the UK need to do trade deals with are quite so keen – let alone what the EU thinks of this approach.

Hunt appears keener on Singapore’s approach to investment in education and infrastructure but that supposes that the government isn’t currently making such investments. Several ministerial colleagues may disagree. Indeed, it was Michael Gove who, as Education Secretary, cited Singapore as an inspiration for his revision of teaching and exams.

The less compelling aspects of Singapore’s culture, such as the (lack of) freedom of its people and the pressure applied on the children to secure their results, has featured less heavily in Hunt and Gove’s comments.

Nick Timothy meanwhile, chuntering from the confines of his Daily Telegraph column, has hit out at the much-delayed Immigration White Paper and critiqued the Government’s failure to challenge the liberal consensus. As soon as a policy, such as the Immigration White Paper, is announced then the media are full of stories about options that may or may not be ruled out, as well as indications about the true positions of leading cabinet ministers.

But the debate really comes down to ideas about what it is to be a Conservative in the 21st Century. It could be argued that pragmatism has been the defining characteristic of the Conservative Party and helped it to win so many elections. The Party made itself comfortable with Keynesian economics, the use of the state, and the role of the NHS among other key policies.

Then came Margaret Thatcher who believed that something more revolutionary was required, introducing ideology into the party. There is some dispute about how revolutionary she really was and Simon Jenkins’ book Accountable to None, highlighting the centralising tendencies of her governments, is still worth a read over twenty years after it was first published. And, of course, the achievements of neo-liberalism are a constant source of debate across the political spectrum.

There are no shortage of views and ideas expressed across Conservative websites about what Britain should look like but the Party itself appears to have no way of considering these or coming to a consensus. A consensus which could actually make it easier to sell a Brexit deal.

It is though hardly the case that Labour is putting forward its own version of what it wants the approach to be. Keeping quiet and letting the Conservatives implode is a political strategy, and one that seems to suit Corbyn well on the Brexit issue, but it does little to attract new voters or convince them about the positives of potentially voting Labour.

So the Brexit debate continues in the same style – a debate over personalities and power, not the substantive challenges that face the country. These challenges will remain whatever happens in Parliament to Mrs May’s deal, whether Article 50 is extended, whether there is a second referendum and whether Brexit happens or not.

Something will have to change in 2019.

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