Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.
When I worked for Boris Johnson during his first term as Mayor of London, I led on devolving powers to City Hall, and went through it with Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy honcho. One idea was to devolve VAT to London, copying regional sales taxes in North America. “We can’t. It is against EU rules. Not sure why,” said Letwin.
With our agreement with the EU, arguably the biggest change is not individual policy areas, but the sense of empowerment. Throughout government, naysayers and those suffering excessive status-quo bias have been able to stop any initiative saying: “you can’t. It is against EU rules.”
Sometimes – like the abolition of the tampon tax and banning live animal exports – it was a correct interpretation of EU law. But often it was just a general prohibition. It would end the matter, because no one really understood the EU rules, they were too difficult to challenge, and basically impossible to change. It bred throughout the UK government machinery an intellectual dependency on the EU that led to a pervasive “can’t do” attitude.
But from January 1, no longer will anyone be able to say: “you can’t – EU rules”. We have jumped from the passenger seat to the pilot seat. Can’t do becomes can do. So – what should we do?
Eighteen months ago, at the depth of our Brexit political paralysis, ConservativeHome asked me to write a series of 10 articles highlighting potential “Policy Gains from Brexit” – things we might want to do and would be able to do once we had left the EU. So how are we doing?
On most of the issues, we are making great headway. Across much of government, the new empowerment has led to a renaissance of democracy and policy making. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used to be a body for transposing EU rules, with a bureaucracy that had gone native.
But under Michael Gove, Liz Truss and George Eustice, civil servants have transformed from passive recipients to enlightened creators, giving the department a buzz of excitement.
The Agriculture Bill – the first time we have had an agricultural policy for over 40 years – scraps the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces it with environmental subsidies (it was a pleasure to do my maiden speech on it).
The Environment Bill (which I sat on the Bill Committee of) doesn’t just replace EU environmental law, but enhances it and tailors it for the UK, much to the delight of green groups.
The Fisheries Bill gives us our own, more sustainable, fisheries policy (subject to quotas agreed with the EU).
The Government is consulting on banning the export of live animals for slaughter, which the impotent Labour government was unable to do when it wanted to.
We now have a Department for International Trade, with our own trade negotiators, giving us a trade policy for the first time in forty years, and pumping out our own trade agreements. Agriculture and environment groups have been enthusiastically debating how we protect standards in our trade policy, something nobody discussed before because we had no power to deliver it.
The Treasury is reviewing the whole framework of financial services regulation, with the aim of setting out an ambitious financial services strategy. Previous strategies for financial services (which I played my part in, as chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association) were rather optimistic exercises – the UK government didn’t have the power to do very much. Almost all our financial services regulation we have inherited from the EU, but we need to ensure it is proportionate, and supports innovation and competition, as well as international competitiveness and high standards.
The Treasury has scrapped the hated tax on tampons, which EU rules had prevented George Osborne from doing. The popular duty free from EU countries is coming back after a 20 year absence – with the ferries from Holyhead to Dublin offering it from Friday. The Government is launching freeports to boost trade and regeneration of more deprived parts of the UK. The Home Office has scrapped the much-hated freedom of movement, and replaced it with a global immigration policy making sure we can get the talent that our economy needs.
But now that we have this empowerment, what else could we do now we have left the EU? Here are some other possibilities:
- Reform public procurement (under the OJEU rules), to make it fit for purpose and give small businesses more opportunities.
- Promote competition among retail banks by reforming EU inherited capital rules.
- Remove VAT on housing insulation and other environmental products, and reform the biofuels regime.
- Transform our waste and recycling regime, so it is not an exercise in hitting EU targets.
- Reform the EU’s second company directive to reduce pointless red tape for public companies.
- Reform the General Data Protection Regulation to protect privacy while reducing burdens on small charities and businesses.
- Reform Solvency II so our insurance companies can compete globally.
- Promote collaboration programmes with the Commonwealth, rather than just the EU.
It has been obscured by the dramas around Brexit and Covid, but the policy arena is the most exciting it has been for a generation. Say goodbye to can’t do. Say hello to the new “can do” Britain.