We can all list our favourite reasons why the Brexit promised in the pale dawn sunlight of June 2016 has not turned out to be a walk in the park or even a final date with EU destiny. But whatever we now think of the outcome of the referendum, we are all trapped in the old Indian saying about the banyan tree – under its shade little new can grow. Sometimes, I miss my role writing about politics of the kind that was not just about meaningful(ish) votes, all-or-nothing dates leading to the next cliff edge, scoldings from EU leaders, and whether Theresa May is on her way out, only to be there the next week and off on another walking holiday.
One day political archaeologists will dig into the frozen tundra and find the remains of government activity preserved under the permafrost. It might well start with HS2, which was once a glorious project slashing commuting times to Birmingham, with vague promises of what it might achieve for “the North”. (Westminster has a terminology as inexact as Narnia for areas outside the south-east.) Now, unnoticed by all but high-speed train-spotters, the project’s completion cost, date, capacity, speed and even where it should terminate in London are in question. Sir Terry Morgan, the outgone chairman, has described the price tag as a “guesstimate”. New sums suggest the cost might rise from £56bn to nearly twice that amount, before we add on trains and power costs.
Overseeing vast infrastructure projects on the taxpayers’ behalf is the bread and butter of government – and yet they feel peripheral to the daily slog of Brexitology. A minister at the heart of the fray describes the effect on politicians as “living with hyper stimulation” – unable to catch breath or resources to deal with anything that is not to do with avoiding backstops, meeting deadline dates and keeping up with parliamentary procedure.
Few prizes await those who bash on with tricky projects, try to streamline clunky civil service operations or pursue an unpopular argument with colleagues to make an idea better (or, as in the Chris Grayling Brexit ferries fiasco, fend off the worst).
Occasionally, something urgent forces its way onto the agenda, most recently the spike in knife crime. On this subject, May and the home secretary, Sajid Javid, have had some sensible stuff to say. Both back the view of Cressida Dick, the shrewd chief of the Met, who has looked closely at what allows violent street crime to thrive in some parts of London and be better controlled in others. She believes that a judicious use of stop and search is warranted, but that it is by no means the full story in reducing stabbings. The government’s stance is evolving from an over-reliance on tough, instant measures to the recognition, as May herself put it at a recent knife-crime summit, that “we cannot simply arrest ourselves out of this problem”.
Javid picked up the theme in his “it could have been me” speech on delinquency. It was eloquent and, in essence, a pitch for more support from the backbenches against the bigger rolling leadership bandwagon of the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and self-exiled Brexiter, Boris Johnson. But any shift in approach to serious matters loses traction as political attention shifts back to how to fight European elections that were never meant to take place. If this is the case for subjects of this salience, imagine the sheer desuetude of policy areas that are not always front of mind but which affect huge numbers of lives.
When I bumped into Chris Skidmore, the amiable universities minister, he looked pretty amazed that anyone outside the sector was interested in his thinking on the day job, rather than the next vote in the Commons or May’s longevity. Last week, he announced a push on universities to open up to military veterans, care-givers and others at the margins of opportunity. All solid stuff, but not really the answer to the big questions facing the government on its stance on fees and funding or how it will justify the continued investment higher education needs, against the wilder promises from Labour of abolishing charges for undergraduates.
Allow ministers to be superficial technocrats and they will surely oblige: not because they are (all) lazy or chancers, just because there is no reason for them to expend energy on a debate that is at the margins of attention with no obvious wins for them. So long as they are identified mainly by where they stand on Brexit, how they voted in the last battles of attrition over indicative votes (which are, we should remember, not binding on the government, let alone on the EU’s negotiators), the less reason they have to get interested in deep reforms or fresh ideas.
The other victim of this situation is May herself, reduced to the role of single-issue PM. Did she mean to attend to the “burning injustices” in society she highlighted in her 2018 conference speech? I am never sure, as the language and sudden splurge of vision was at such odds with her cautious tenure at the Home Office. Even allowing for the blind spots of government (of which the Windrush scandal was a dreadful example), it is not enough to merely position oneself as the Tory equivalent of a social-justice warrior.
But I do know, from past encounters with May, that she wanted to take a fresh look at secondary education, with some of the glamour worn off from the early gains of the Blair years and the Cameron-Gove determination to push for higher numbers of academies and a now-marginal free schools movement. May was more friendly to allowing elements of selection than either of her predecessors, a notion dismissed as a “return to the 11-plus” and discarded after the departure of her chief ideologist, Nick Timothy. But the early thinking here was about better ways to copy elements of the German Gymnasium model, which has endured being more responsive to local conditions. One of the main ideas was a substantial quota of places reserved for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Either way, we never really got near knowing what a May education policy would have looked like in practice, because a botched election sapped her confidence on the issue. Instead the education secretary, Damian Hinds, is fretting about the risks to home-schooled children. Not an unreasonable concern in itself, but another example of ministers dealing with narrowcast topics, rather than seeking to make a wider mark.
There are Tigger ministers, notably Matt Hancock at health, directing their departments towards genomics and to boost the limited use the NHS makes of technological gains. Yet the single biggest challenge – how to fund social care and network it more efficiently with the NHS, especially for the old or needy – languishes. Remember, this was the subject that caused the wheels to fall off May’s 2017 election campaign. Thus it is well over two years (pre-Hancock) since government promised a great leap forward, and it was the end of 2018 when Hancock himself announced the “finishing touches” were on the way. At this rate, Godot will arrive faster than a flagship reform long overdue.
A deluge of Brexit planning means that ministers end up content to beg the chancellor for money to stuff holes in frontline budgets in the traditional pecking order: health first, then schools – though only when the anger over badly maintained classrooms and overstretched budgets has reached boiling point, as it did when 7,000 school heads wrote in protest to the Department for Education about the impact of funding shortfalls.
When government is paralysed to this extent, the opposition has little reason to flex its policy-making muscles. In Jeremy Corbyn’s case, these owe a lot more to pre-cooked hunches and doctrinaire aversions than any appetite for curiosity or mind-stretching approaches to the most testing dilemmas of our times. Labour has a good shot at coming to power, while being thoroughly untested on its ability to deliver on promises to create a fairer country without undermining economic fundamentals already shaken by the uncertainties facing businesses in planning for the next couple of years.
So the wheels still turn in Whitehall, but the results are patchy and the scale of ambition shrivels. “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings,” as Jane Austen observes in Mansfield Park. So ministers keep themselves busy, between episodes of the long-running Brexit series, while really not doing over much at all.
• Anne McElvoy is senior editor at the Economist