Brexit: It can’t happen without ‘the experts’

Cast out by the referendum campaign now ‘the experts’ have to rush back in – or Brexit will never happen.

It spans 77 pages. It was first promised early last year. It’s only a consultation document splitting the difference between options 1 to 8 for a single part of a single industry. But that’s how we do things around here.

I’m talking about the regulator Ofcom’s report recommending the legal separation of one part of BT – Openreach, a wholesaler of broadband – from the rest of the group. The value at stake is around £20bn, a large sum, easily large enough for anyone who loses out from Ofcom’s proposal to pursue a judicial review. This is why their recommendation is enclosed in a careful and conscientious consultation document; though Ofcom’s work would have those characteristics anyway even if the value at stake was much less. Parliament set up the regulator under statute to behave in that particular way. Ofcom’s approach to this issue is neither unusual nor distinctive. There are similar regulators for most industries. It isn’t merely the courts that provide a backstop, an uber-regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority – spans the whole economy.

What a lot of bureaucracy. Except that the predictability and stability these processes provide is core to the UK’s competitive position. Every year the World Economic Forum ranks 140 countries in a global competitiveness index. On property rights, we are third; on the strength of investor protection, we are fourth; and on the transparency of policymaking, thirteenth. We are not a buccaneering nation. Our growth rate is a fraction of the most exciting emerging markets. The population is ageing. Productivity improvements are modest. But we are a safe bet, a highly predictable albeit low growth place to do business. Never mind the business case, the rule of law, and independent and impartial policymaking are also among our fundamental constitutional values.

This is the context in which we will figure out the meaning of “Brexit means Brexit”. In other words, it is only when policymakers show the same duty of care for the whole economy and all of our common interests that Ofcom has in reviewing a tiny part that we will have started being serious about the task ahead. Until then it’s all talk. Cast out by the referendum campaign ‘the experts’ now have to rush back in.

And what a task lies before them. For one limited policy area, Ofcom had a schema of 8 options. Brexit is many, many times more complex, not to mention newsworthy and controversial, and its implications touch every element of our national life. There are likely to be many more agonising choices to make. Government will soon have to describe them all. As soon as it does that, we will spot a few more. David Cameron’s government ran a balance of competencies review in advance of the previous renegotiation with the EU. It was an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK. It took 2 years. All of that was merely to settle our negotiating position; and on the basis of staying in the EU.

The issues involved this time are harder and more numerous. The responsible plan may be to get a new review up and running soon after Parliament’s summer break. Though even if it was done at the same pace as the last one this means we don’t start the negotiation with the EU on leaving until sometime late in 2018. That’s a long way off but it reflects the Rolls Royce approach that we are used to taking.

Breaking up the task may be necessary. The balance of competencies review was divided into four semesters. This did more than demonstrate action at regular intervals, it also made the process more manageable for anyone who wanted to contribute views, including Parliament, and for government itself.

Such a staged approach to doing the work of Brexit will inevitably draw some complaints. To passionate Leavers it will look like delaying tactics, kicking the can down the road until the can breaks. But equally it may be argued that the longer that Brexit means the overwhelming, all-encompassing conundrum of Brexit then the less serious Government proves itself to be about implementing it. Bureaucracy is the Brexiteer’s friend not its enemy. If the civil service isn’t helping Brexit to happen in a serious, considered and careful way, then Brexit isn’t happening. To return to the example of Ofcom, it was only by launching a strategic review of the telecoms sector sixteen months ago that the regulator gave itself any hope of achieving major change. What looked on the surface like a long delay provided the time to do the essential groundwork for reform.

So while there may yet be an exciting bit to come at the end of Brexit, it’s a long way off. For the moment tune in for the long and boring part.


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