Brexit is the dominant policy debate of our time; understandably so. It is the issue that has divided the nation, split both main political parties at Westminster, and threatens to cast a shadow over the UK for a generation.
Still, it’s not the only show in town. Today we learn that Birmingham Prison is to be brought back under government control because under G4S it had fallen into a “state of crisis”. Meanwhile, a couple both earning the living wage don’t bring in enough income to afford a basic, no-frills lifestyle for their family.
Last week, research revealed that the average GP now works less than three and a half days a week – which might explain why people across the country find it so damnably difficult to get a doctor’s appointment. And let’s not forget that rail fares are going up faster than average wages.
None of these are connected to Brexit. It is possible of course that such domestic matters will be further affected by the consequences of EU withdrawal, assuming it goes ahead. But the privatisation of the prison sector, changes to the welfare system and crises in the NHS cannot be laid at the door of our relationship with Brussels.
There are, perhaps, some on both sides of the Brexit debate who will argue otherwise. For hardcore Leavers, almost every ill can be pinned on EU membership (probably because of the free movement of people); ardent Remainers might contend that had we not been inside the EU, things would be worse. In the grand Brexit debate, it’s always possible to find a statistic that supports your point of view.
However, daily life for most people isn’t the hypothetical past, present or future effects of our relationship with the European Union. It’s struggling to pay the bills; or wondering whether to face a long queue at A&E because the GP’s surgery hasn’t got an appointment for a month; or worrying that chaotic prisons run by private firms aren’t ideal places for rehabilitating criminals.
In this context, the immediate significance of Brexit is not its potential impact (either way) in years to come but its real or perceived draining of government and civil service attention from issues that mean something to British citizens in the here and now.
For the government, there is therefore a dual problem: not only must it seek to find a solution to the Brexit conundrum; it must also try to convince voters that it isn’t forgetting to actually, you know, run the country.
Frankly, the chances of the present government succeeding in this double endeavour seem limited at best. Even if it were not hopelessly riven between competing factions, and even if it enjoyed a parliamentary majority, the task would be Herculean.
The beneficiary in the end, of course, may well be Jeremy Corbyn, who has the primary advantage of never having been in power (so can’t be blamed for anything, yet) and who, in addition, appears to offer British voters a genuinely different style of government. The failure of Birmingham Prison is further grist to his nationalisation mill – as are all problems with railways and healthcare (whether fairly or not). And the prospect of a government that is prepared to borrow to get the economy moving will be like manna from heaven for those who have felt left behind by a decade of austerity.
It is entirely plausible that the outcome of the Brexit negotiations could precipitate the next general election in this country – either because the government finds itself without a mandate in parliament for its preferred course of action, or in the wake of a disputed withdrawal. But it is highly unlikely that Brexit will be the primary driver of voters’ decision-making (unless a general election has been preceded by a second, close run referendum on Britain’s EU membership, in which case all bets are off).
Even though Labour is almost as divided as the Conservatives on the Brexit question, those divisions will not – barring the unexpected – have been so brutally exposed by the business of actually overseeing the UK’s withdrawal. They will as a result be easier to heal.
So, forget chaos in Brussels’ negotiating rooms; it’s chaos in Birmingham’s jail that points to a Corbyn government.
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