Uncertainty is now the new certainty as two cabinet ministers quit

As two government ministers resign, Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker, looks at the ramifications of the departure of the Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (right), with former Brexit secretary David Davis.

One of the immediate ramifications of Brexit secretary David Davis resigning from the cabinet was housing minister Dominic Rabb being moved from a position that his government claims is an important one, given the need to build more houses quickly and affordably. Rabb's arrival to head up the Department for Exiting the EU means that the construction sector will have had eight housing minsters in the last eight years. Hardly a strong and stable approach to one of the most important political issues facing the nation.

Except that housing isn’t seen by many politicians as one of the most important issues facing the nation. Brexit is. The resignation of David Davis and now Boris Johnson and its ongoing aftermath illustrates once again how preoccupied with Europe and the UK’s decision to leave the machinery of government is. 

When I spoke earlier this year with a mid-ranking civil servant about the current political scene, they told me straight out that everything and everyone was totally taken up with Brexit and little else was being done. The Davis and Johnson resignations, yet another reshuffle and more political uncertainty, undoubtedly means that the UK’s body politic will remain (no pun intended!) obsessed with Brexit for the foreseeable future. And that will more than likely be to the detriment of taking the important and urgent decisions to rebuild and revitalise the nation’s infrastructure. In short, a government and a prime minister preoccupied with their own survival are not going to be fully focused on making other crucial decisions in the national interest.

On the eve of the National Infrastructure Commission’s announcement of its national infrastructure assessment report and just days after the government unveiled a new sector deal for the construction industry, the focus of the political world should have been on what needs to be done to improve UK infrastructure, something that has the potential to improve the lives and life chances of every citizen of this country. However, as we can all see from the frenzied media coverage around the government’s future, that is not what journalists will be focused on. Brexit will, again, dominate the headlines.

In truth, political uncertainty has been inevitable since the outcome of last year’s general election. Hung parliaments rarely lead to decisive decision making in government and adding Brexit into the mix has only made a bad situation even worse. 

As Julian Francis, director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering told me this morning, reacting to the latest government resignation: “At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we desperately need more certainty. With only eight months to go until the UK leaves the EU, we are still no nearer to definite answers on what this means for our members’ businesses, nor the impact on attracting the best talent from across Europe.  These are not only critical issues for our industry, but other sectors too. Now is the time for all politicians to put the interests of the country above party politics. We simply no longer have the time for unnecessary political machinations.”

So, what is to be done? Well, the infrastructure sector, in common with the rest of the business community undoubtedly needs certainty in order to plan for the future. Industry lobby groups should enter the fray by continuing to urge the government to get its eye back on the ball and concentrate on making the decisions the country needs and not to be deflected by the continuing fallout from Brexit.

Making the case for a Brexit that makes it easier to improve UK infrastructure and focusing the government’s mind on facilitating and making investments in much needed - and some long-delayed - projects is essential. And that will mean closer ties with Europe, not the hard Brexit being envisaged by some in government. Otherwise we run the risk of seeing the UK fall further behind in comparison with its competitors across Europe and further afield. Of course, this is easier said than done but these points do need making because the infrastructure sector is not a disinterested observer to current events.

An alternative approach of course would be to look to remove the current uncertainty by having a general election and giving the people an opportunity to have their say. That may well yet happen and some people would welcome it, especially the Labour oppostion. After the resignation of the foreign secretary it certainly looks like the prime minister is living on borrowed time and her removal could well lead to another election in a matter of months. However, given the outcome last time around, is there any guarantee that a new national poll would lead to more certainty and a new strong and stable government?

In the short term, it’s clear that uncertainty is set to be the new certainty and that’s not good news for a sector that thrives on stable politics, business stability and governments with the ability to take long-term decisions in the interests of the nation.

What is for sure is that, one way or another, the current political and business uncertainty needs to end - and the sooner the better.

Andy Walker is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence.

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