The Observer view on the baleful distraction of Brexit | Observer editorial

Every shred of political energy is being tied up in Brexit, with detrimental effects on a nation facing other urgent challenges

Brexit has paralysed British politics: it has left the government utterly incapacitated, ministers warring and both main parties riven by splits. It is absorbing every shred of political energy; in the words of one official, it has wiped the policy grid clean. Yet in every nook and cranny of the state – from understaffed hospitals to the schools sending parents begging letters for financial support – there are problems that demand urgent focus and resource. We also face huge social challenges that require action now, from how to care for an ageing society to how to prepare for the impact of technology on the world of work. All this is going ignored, with detrimental effects on people’s lives.

There is a grim paradox at the heart of Brexit. The vote for Britain to leave the EU was partly fuelled by the sense among many voters that there are increasingly two Britains: a thriving capital barely touched by recession and boarded-up high streets outside the south-east. This has been a long project in the making, driven by decades of deindustrialisation and uneven economic growth that have contributed to some of the biggest regional inequalities in western Europe. Yet Brexit is going to make it far harder to respond to this gap, which has only got wider since the financial crisis.

Of course, not all that’s transpired since June 2016 can be laid at the door of Brexit. Deliberate political choices made since 2010 at first contributed to the economic dissatisfaction that paved the way for the vote and since then have made it worse. Even as Conservative chancellors delivered expensive tax cuts to the overwhelming benefit of more affluent households, the pain of the spending cuts has been borne by low-income families with children, with child poverty forecast to hit record levels by 2022. From hospitals to schools to policing, public services have been forced to cut back in ways that have hurt people’s lives. Instead of borrowing to invest in the infrastructure that could have kickstarted regional economies, ministers used the financial crisis as an excuse to spend less.

But there is barely any political capacity to respond to the consequences of eight years of austerity. In an unprecedented intervention, a group of cross-party select committee chairs has expressed grave concerns in the Observer today about the detrimental effect the Brexit negotiations are having on the domestic policy agenda.

This is evident across huge swaths of domestic policy. The combination of the housing crisis and a fraying welfare state means too many people can no longer afford their rent, let alone get on the housing ladder. The rollout of universal credit, with people facing delays of weeks until they get their first payment, has pushed families into rent arrears and forced them to rely on foodbanks. The most visible sign of something deeply awry is the growing number of rough sleepers on Britain’s streets, but there are hundreds of thousands more who are homeless out of sight. Tackling homelessness would require building more social housing, reforming universal credit and undoing the benefit cuts of the past eight years, but there appears little appetite from government for any of this.

NHS leaders are warning that the health service is facing its worst-ever winter crisis. Last January, NHS England took the extraordinary step of postponing all non-urgent surgery, leaving patients in unnecessary pain, and waiting lists have grown by 62% since 2011. Yet political chaos has pushed back the publication of the government’s 10-year plan for the NHS. Meanwhile, life expectancy is falling in some parts of the country.

Councils have had their central government grants slashed by almost half since 2010, most affecting poorer areas with lower levels of council tax and business rates revenue. This has hit services for vulnerable children: as we report today, the Local Government Association predicts a £1.6bn funding gap in services for children with special educational needs and disabilities by 2020-21. And fewer older people are getting financial help with their care costs, leaving 1.4 million without the support they need to carry out tasks such as washing and eating. Yet the government has once again delayed publishing its proposals for reforming social care funding.

The number of police officers on the streets of England and Wales is at its lowest level since the 1980s, despite recent increases in violent crime. Delays have beset big transport infrastructure projects such as HS2 and Crossrail, while commuters across the country have suffered as a result of botched timetable changes.

In 2016, Brexit was disingenuously sold by rightwing Eurosceptics as a solution to the very problems that the government’s austerity drive had compounded – stretched public services, ailing local economies and a lack of good jobs. It is not only a major distraction from finding answers to those problems: the economic pain it inflicts will make them worse. There are no Brexit-shaped shortcuts to better hospitals and schools, a kinder welfare state, more well-paid jobs and flourishing town centres. But they are things people rightly want and expect and the government must find a way to deliver them.


Observer editorial

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