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Tony Travers: Brexit showdown is a test of state's capacity to govern

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This week’s Brexit showdown at Chequers is revealing about the nature and style of British government. 

We are more than two years after the EU referendum and yet only now does the prime minister feel she has the cliff-edge power to determine even the most basic outline details about issues such as the future of the Northern Ireland border, customs arrangements and the single market.

Until now, Ms May has managed to keep her parliamentary not-quite-coalition (that is the Conservatives and the DUP, but also Brexiteers and remainers) together. As long as little was decided, the many threats of resignations, rebellions and revolts came to nothing. But if the prime minister finally outlines a clear position on any Brexit issue, the coalition will break apart.

The toxic political atmosphere which has evolved since the referendum has taken British politics into strange territory where senior Conservatives actively attack big business because the latter wants a ‘no change’ Brexit. In parallel, a number of Labour MPs vote with pro-Brexit Tories for often contradictory reasons.

Local government looks brilliantly-led and decisive by comparison. Because councils have to deliver essential services on a day-to-day basis, there is no scope for the kind of personality-driven misbehaviour which has latterly engulfed the cabinet. But a reckoning will come. Either Brexit is made to deliver immediate prosperity for all parts of the country, for all industries and all households or the current government will suffer electorally.

The prime minister has asked Conservative MPs, peers and members to produce 1,000 new policy ideas to form the basis of the party’s next manifesto. This effort will exist alongside government indecision about (among other things) the adult care funding crisis, an under-performing housing market, ill-formed migration policy and the lack of a post-Brexit farming support system.

Such capacity as the government has at present would surely be best applied to delivering solutions to existing policy challenges rather than harvesting proposals for 1,000 new ones. Friday’s Chequers away-day is a test not only of the government’s potential finally to deliver Brexit but also of the broader capacity of the British State to govern. Decisions cannot be put off for much longer. Stakes are very high.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London


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