‘But what are you going to do with the powers?’ the minister asked, while I negotiated devolution of powers to London when Boris was mayor. The government wouldn’t grant powers unless we explained how we would use them.
And that is what is missing in the Brexit non-debate. We are ‘taking back control’ — but we haven’t really thought what we will do with that control once we have it. It is true there has been discussion of trade deals, transforming the Common Agricultural Policy and the colour of our passports. But if that was all we could do, even most Brexiteers wouldn’t have considered it worth it.
So, what could we do once we Brexit? Well actually, given how extensive EU law is, an awful lot. Some will depend on the deal we have with the EU. Some are things we could do but wouldn’t want to do. But there are also lots of popular things the government could do.
In 1997, Tony Blair campaigned to scrap VAT on domestic gas and electricity. But because of the EU, he had to settle for 5 per cent. Once we leave the EU, the government could do what Blair couldn’t. Fuel poverty campaigners, take note.
Tories and Labour have wanted to scrap the hated ‘tampon tax’ — VAT on tampons. But what is impossible inside the EU becomes possible outside. Women campaigners, take note. In fact, the government could scrap the hideously complex VAT system — a job creation scheme for accountants we had to bring in when we joined the EU — altogether, and go back to the simple purchase tax we had before.
In the 1990s, there were endless protests along the coast against exporting live lambs and calves for slaughter in Europe. The government wanted to ban the exports, but couldn’t because of EU rules. Animal welfare groups, take note. In 2012, Nicola Sturgeon passed a law to impose minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland, but it has not come in because the ECJ complained. She could control Scottish fisheries to revitalise Scottish fishing ports.
The last Labour government fought to have control of EU regional development funding to the UK. I was in charge of these EU funds in London, and the system is a money-go-round nonsense. Come Brexit, the government will be able to design funding to fit the country’s priorities. Northern Powerhouse fund anyone?
The UK could also be brought closer together by introducing variable Air Passenger Duty — such as scrapping it on flights from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, or halving it from Scotland to England. Impossible in the EU, but possible outside.
There was a huge national moan when duty free for passengers travelling to Europe was abolished, because it conflicted with EU single market rules. Come Brexit, the government could bring back duty free for trips to France, Spain and Italy.
As head of the British Bankers’ Association, I promoted competition in banking, arguing that challenger banks should have a level playing field with large banks on prudential regulation. The government was supportive, but the barrier was the EU. It was a constant frustration to the UK’s global financial institutions that the EU would apply its rules to their operations all over the world, making them less competitive internationally. Come Brexit, it seems likely the government would be able to ensure that a UK bank or insurance company working in the US or Asia can compete with US or Asian banks on a level playing field.
Byzantine EU rules can make procurement by public authorities a tortuous quagmire. The former minister Francis Maude fought a valiant battle for major reform. But Brexit means the government can set up a more effective procurement regime, helping improve public services.
David Cameron focused his brutalising EU renegotiation on being allowed to stop paying UK child benefit payments to children who don’t live in the UK. Once we leave, the government could do it in the time it takes to write the press release. The government will also be allowed to ensure that EU citizens living in the UK follow the same rules as British citizens on bringing in spouses. The government will have the freedom to set language rules for EU doctors, and to deport EU criminals.
There are lots of things the government opposed at the time, but which we will end up keeping. It lost a battle to stop passengers getting compensation if aeroplane delays are caused by technical problems. I doubt that will change. But I can see market stalls being allowed to sell apples just in lbs and oz. Metric martyrs could claim a late victory.
The government has made clear it doesn’t want to scrap the EU’s employment laws. No British government — Labour or Conservative — supported the EU’s working time directive, but it is clearly here to stay. However, there are some aspects that might be tweaked. When the ECJ ruled that doctors sleeping in hospitals but being on call had to count it as full working time, it caused staff shortages in the NHS. With staff shortages again afflicting the NHS, there might be an agreement to change it.
Then there are things a future government might want to do, but which at the moment it can’t. It is clear, for example, that the wholesale nationalisation of the train system is an infringement of the EU’s Fourth Railway Package, which requires governments to open up train services to the markets. If Corbyn were to become PM, Brexit would enable him to deliver on his pledge.
Leaving the EU reopens whole areas of policymaking off limits for decades. Whether you are a rail nationaliser, a women’s warrior, a fuel poverty campaigner, NHS manager, animal rights activist, a public procurer, a commuter between Belfast and London, or someone who used to enjoy duty free on trips to Costa del Sol — there could be something in Brexit for you. We have decided to take back control. We should start discussing all the things we could do with it.