Anthony Browne is a former director of Policy Exchange and a former Europe correspondent of the Times.
It has probably been the most common excuse uttered by civil servants to ideas-ridden ministers: “It is a wonderful proposal, Minister, but I am afraid we can’t do it. It is against EU rules.”
Which, like citing health and safety, makes it difficult to push back. But when Brexit happens, that excuse will go (although much will depend on the deal we have). All the sound and furore about making it happen is all about means – how does the government deliver Brexit – but there has been virtually no debate about the ends: what we can do when we “take back control”?
There has obviously been discussion about the trade deals that we may or may not be able to do, and about moving back to blue – or weren’t they really black? – passports. The Home Office has been busy abolishing freedom of movement of people and setting up a new immigration policy; and Michael Gove has set out how matters will work after the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy cease to apply.]
But given how much policy comes from the EU, there is so much more that a post-Brexit government could do. One could simply trawl through the news cuttings to see the number of times that governments have been prevented from delivering what they want by EU rules, or go through the list of cases that the Government has lost in the European Court of Justice.
None the less, most of the time when government has been frustrated, it hasn’t admitted it in public. A post-Brexit Prime Minister could get each department to list the top five policies that previous ministers have been told they can’t implement because of EU rules. Some might be good policies, some bad, and some are politically toxic: I can’t see a future government wanting to scrap the cap on banker’s bonuses that George Osborne struggled so futilely to block, or to get rid of the Working Time Directive, which bans British workers working more than 48 hours a week (despite the fact that no British government ever supported it).
But there are other policies that are politically popular, and could deliver a real Brexit bonus. If the Government set out the stall for such policies – and got the public excited about it – it would make life more politically difficult for those who want to block Brexit. They would be trying to overturn them. This series will be about a range of policies that a post-Brexit government could do if it wished.