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From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the government’s agenda?
From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the Government’s agenda?

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

What is the government’s plan for state aid?

Two of the Margaret Thatcher’s most steadfast beliefs were the benefits of European economic integration and the folly of governments providing financial aid to support particular businesses and industries, both of which she said contributed to the UK being labelled the ‘sick man of Europe.’ Ahead of the UK joining the European single market in 1992, Margaret Thatcher addressed businesses and encouraged them to think about the opportunities access to the single market would create. She said: “Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers – visible and invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.”

How times change. The current Conservative government, in its negotiations with the EU, is willing to sacrifice access to the single market so that it can offer state aid to British businesses. This about-turn raises a fundamental question: why is this government so keen to be able to financially support businesses, and what does it hope to achieve?

What are the rules on state aid?

State aid, broadly speaking, is any advantage granted by the government on a selective basis to businesses, and it can come in many forms: direct cash transfers, preferential tax treatment and financial guarantees offered by the state. Under EU rules, there is not a blanket ban on state aid. State aid can be provided if it is approved by the European Commission, it is of a small sum or if it is covered by the General Block Exemption Rule. The General Block Exemption Rule allows state aid to promote new activities that would not otherwise have taken place and promotes economic development without distorting competition. State aid that falls outside of these parameters and is viewed to distort competition by offering an advantage to a particular business or industry is illegal under EU law.

The UK and the EU are currently at loggerheads over state aid and a future free trade deal. The EU is demanding that in return for a free trade deal, the British government should commit to ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU’s state aid rules – the so-called ‘level playing field’ commitments. The UK government, however, wants to have its own ‘separate and independent’ policy on state subsidies. The EU’s fear is that if it gives British firms free trade access to the single market without assurances on state aid, the government in the UK could subsidise green technology, for example, and undercut European made products, undermining the principles of the single market. The EU’s objections are quite reasonable – if you want to be a member of a club, you need to play by the rules. If there can be no agreement between the two sides, the UK will leave the EU on 1 January 2021 without a deal, an outcome that is looking increasingly likely (and even desirable to some within Downing St).

What’s the plan?

Should the UK leave without a deal, the government will not be able to splash the cash wherever it wants, as it will still be bound by World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on state aid. One crucial difference though is that the WTO state aid restrictions only cover goods, while the EU’s rules cover both goods and services. This opens the door to the UK being able to financially support a range of industries in the service sector, an area where the UK already has a competitive advantage, especially in financial and professional services.

Dominic Cummings recently told civil servants in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that he was working on a plan to help the UK build ‘$1 trillion tech companies.’ Cummings views a no-deal Brexit and the removal of EU state aid restrictions as an opportunity for the government to support British start-ups to become genuine players on the world stage, having historically lagged behind the United States and China.

Looser rules on state aid would also help the UK be more flexible in times of emergency. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, HM Treasury was restricted in its ability to offer CLBILS loans to private equity-backed firms due to the EU’s rules on ‘businesses in difficulty.’ Due to the leveraged financial structure of these firms, under EU rules, they were not eligible for government financial support. Outside of the EU’s legal framework on state aid, the government would be free to financially aid whichever businesses it chose to, an option that will only become more appealing as the reality of increasing unemployment kicks in.

Will it work?

The idea of a British tech giant is an appealing one for the government. Foreign technology firms are difficult to tax, and it would make the government’s life a lot easier if it had a homegrown firm it could draw revenue from. The creation of high quality, well-paying jobs would also be a bonus.

There are some problems with Cummings’ plan, though. Historically, the British government has a chequered record of success in ‘picking winners.’ When compared to the private sector, governments lack the knowledge, expertise and market discipline to sustain and grow companies. This means risk is often not weighed effectively, leading to either over or under-investment. There is also the risk that business decisions get made not for sound commercial reasons but to fulfil some other government priority.

The interaction between the state aid tech giant plan and the government’s levelling up agenda also throws up some inconsistencies between its wider priorities. Tech firms tend to thrive in big cities and those that are home to elite universities. These are precisely not the areas the government wants to ‘level up’: post-industrial towns in the north and midlands. The price of state support for the tech sector would be the government trading off the UK’s remaining manufacturing base in the north and midlands by removing tariff-free access to its biggest market.

State aid is an appealing idea, but to be implemented well it requires a government to have patience, skill and good judgement. It will also involve the government having to make an unappealing sacrifice that will undermine its levelling up agenda. The deeper message of the government’s interest in state aid is that it is no longer ideologically wedded to the ideas of the past and it is more than willing to deviate from them if it is politically expedient to do so.

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Brexit explainer – what is the Internal Market Bill and why does it matter?

For avid Brexit-watchers, the headlines from the past week may seem like the country has been transported back to October 2019. With restless backbenchers, strongly worded statements from EU Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, and journalists running to the nearest legal expert, Westminster is suffering from a collective case of déjà vu. For those just tuning back into the Brexit negotiations, here’s what you need to know.

What is the Internal Market Bill?

The Internal Market Bill is intended to create a framework for trade to operate across the four UK nations post-Brexit. The Bill attempts to ensure the whole UK operates as its own single market. It would establish two legal principles – mutual recognition and non-discrimination – to ensure there are no new barriers for businesses trading across the UK, allowing a good or service to be sold anywhere in the UK without any internal standards blocking the movement of goods.

Why is the Bill so controversial?

The principal issue is that the Bill would reverse the Northern Ireland protocol contained in the Withdrawal Agreement, which was signed by Boris Johnson and passed by the current Parliament on 24 January 2020. The protocol settled the issue of post-Brexit trade across the Irish border by applying some EU customs regulation to goods travelling between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland to avoid checks at the Irish border. The Bill would contravene the Agreement in three ways:

  1. It gives ministers powers to not to apply EU standards on paperwork for goods leaving Northern Ireland going to the rest of the UK.
  2. It gives ministers the power to disapply or modify state aid rules in Northern Ireland, which the Withdrawal Agreement stated would continue to be governed by EU state aid rules. Those powers also allow the UK Government to ignore decisions of the European Court of Justice and EU legislation on state aid.
  3. It would prevent individuals from enforcing the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement in UK courts by stating the measures in the Bill are ‘not to be regarded as unlawful on the grounds of any incompatibility or inconsistency with relevant international or domestic law’.

The second issue with the Bill is the decision to apply mutual recognition to the devolved nations without their consultation. Mutual recognition means goods lawfully produced in England according to English standards can be sold in Scotland, even if Scotland has higher (and thus more expensive) standards. This means the devolved nations are not allowed to exclude goods from other UK nations made to lower standards, undermining their ability to set their own regulations.

What has the reaction been?

Reaction has been strong from both sides of the Brexit debate, fuelled by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitting in the Commons that the Bill ‘does break international law in a specific and limited way’. Domestic opponents of the Bill suggest that it will damage the UK’s international reputation, preventing it from being taken seriously when addressing illegal acts conducted by other nations and making trade talks harder.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has described the Bill as an “assault on devolution”, an accusation that is unlikely to hurt the SNP’s standing going into the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year. Sturgeon has now pledged to campaign to demand a new independence referendum as “the only way to protect the Scottish parliament from being undermined and its powers eroded”.

The European Commission has threatened the UK with legal action and trade sanctions if it does not withdraw the controversial clauses in the Internal Market Bill by the end of September. Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin has also personally criticised the Bill, stating that he is now pessimistic about the chances of agreeing a trade deal with the UK. Despite this, the EU has no intention of immediately shutting down  its talks on the UK/EU future-relationship, saying it would amount to falling into a trap set by the UK.

Across the Atlantic, US Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned that there is “no chance” of the US signing a trade deal under a Biden presidency if the UK goes ahead with the Internal Market Bill in its current form because it undermines the Northern Irish peace process.

Why has the government done this?

The government has stated that the Bill is merely its way of tidying up “loose ends” in the Withdrawal Agreement that it says were caused by passing the Agreement “at speed”. The policy is described as a ‘safety net’ by ministers, to protect Northern Ireland’s position if a deal on future relations with the EU cannot be reached.

The UK has also claimed Michel Barnier has threatened not to include the UK on the list of “third countries” on food standards, which would effectively make it illegal to move food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

This defence has been met with scepticism by political commentators, the EU and some UK politicians, who believe the UK Government is either trying to force more concessions from the EU, attempting to force the EU to walk away from negotiations or simply did not realise the implications of the Withdrawal Agreement during the negotiations.

Of course, more than one of these reasons can be true at the same time, and it is entirely possible the UK Government feels it is a necessary action to take to protect trade with Northern Ireland, while also using the Bill as a way of shaking up, or perhaps deliberately destabilising, the trade talks.

What happens now?

The government has told the EU it doesn’t intend to withdraw the Bill, meaning it will be debated in Parliament. Conservative MP Bob Neill has tabled an amendment that would give parliament a veto on any decision to breach the Withdrawal Agreement. A significant number of other amendments are also expected. The passage of any amendment would require a significant Conservative rebellion, as well as the support of Labour, the SNP and the smaller opposition parties.

The Bill must also pass in the House of Lords, where it has been widely condemned, including from Conservative peers. The Lords are highly unlikely to block the Bill but may introduce amendments to force the Bill back to the Commons. It is almost certain to back any amendments passed in the Commons designed to water down the Bill. The Bill can’t pass into law until both Houses pass the same version of the Bill in full.

What happens if the Bill passes?

The passage of the Bill in its current form is likely to cause a serious impasse between the UK and the EU. European Parliament leaders, representing a majority of MEPs, have issued a statement declaring they will block the EU-UK trade deal if there is any breach of the Withdrawal Agreement. This marks a line in the sand from which neither side is backing down and makes the possibility of leaving the transition period without a trade deal significantly higher.

While it is highly unlikely the Bill will be voted down, it may be passed with amendments that either remove or significantly waters down the current provisions. The government is considering implementing sanctions, including a ‘nuclear option’ of withdrawing the whip from rebel Conservative MPs.

The Bill also has implications for the union. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have set out strong opposition to the Bill and with Scottish Parliamentary elections on the horizon in 2021, the Bill is set to further provoke anti-Westminster sentiment among Scottish nationalists. Polls have consistently shown a majority in favour of Scottish independence since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and this Bill is likely to cement opposition to the current Westminster Government in Scotland.

The matter may well be settled in the courts. Although the UK Supreme Court is unlikely to have jurisdiction over the issue due to parliamentary sovereignty, the EU may choose to take the case to the European Court of Justice which has jurisdiction over the interpretation and implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Whatever happens over the next week, the UK Government has chosen a provocative approach that will have significant implications for the outcome of the UK-EU trade negotiations, its relationship with its own MPs, the strength of the union and its international reputation.

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The Winter Economy Plan explained

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has this afternoon delivered his Winter Economy Plan to the House of Commons.

In response to the recent rise in Covid-19 cases and the introduction of new restrictions expected to last for the next six months, the Chancellor cancelled the planned autumn Budget and instead made a short statement on the government’s immediate plans to support jobs and the wider economy over the winter. Before the statement was delivered in Parliament, Sunak was pictured outside No. 11 with the heads of the CBI and the TUC, signalling this was a set of measures that had the endorsement of both businesses and workers.

The decision to cancel the Budget, which would have included details of the government’s long-term fiscal recovery plan, was only made over the last few days. Today’s announcement reflects a recognition that the potential impact of a second wave of Covid-19 has made longer-term economic planning difficult and the government needs to take a flexible approach to the economic challenges ahead. The government has today taken the opportunity to act quickly to prevent a sudden increase in unemployment following the end of the furlough scheme in October and instead allow for a more manageable increase in unemployment.

Officially the government is still aiming to publish a multiyear spending review before the end of the year that would set out departmental budgets until 2024. However, a more likely scenario given the economic uncertainty is for the government to publish a one-year settlement to allow departments to plan for 2021/22. It is expected that the next full Budget will take place before the next fiscal year, likely in March 2021.

The main elements of the Chancellor’s Winter Economy Plan are:

The expected value of the package announced is around £5 billion, leaving the government with more firepower to support the economy should Covid-19 restrictions become more severe. Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor, said it was “a relief” government had U-turned on the need for more support for workers but criticised the government for not acting soon enough. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has also warned that the limits of the new Job Support Scheme mean that the UK will see a large rise in unemployment over the winter.

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The challenges ahead for Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer was elected Leader of the Labour Party on Saturday with a large majority and an overwhelming mandate for change.

His platform was clear and simple: he was the ‘unity’ candidate ready to rebuild the party and take it into power at the next election. His pitch was aimed at Labour’s ‘soft left’ and more closely resembled that of his predecessor’s than some might have imagined, with early pledges to abolish tuition fees, nationalise core industries and introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act.

Now that Starmer has won the election, what sort of leader will he be? And, importantly, what does it mean for the business community?

Unity and the path to power

Political parties are rarely successful and rarely win elections when they are divided. Starmer is fully aware that the disunity and infighting that plagued the party under Jeremy Corbyn had a negative contribution to its electoral success, and so he has taken on the difficult task of trying to unify different groups within the party.

His Shadow Cabinet reflects this commitment and is an early indicator that his rhetoric around ‘unity’ is serious. He offered key roles to his two leadership rivals and kept some of Corbyn’s allies in the Shadow Cabinet, including Andy McDonald and Cat Smith, in addition to Rebecca Long-Bailey.

He promoted some ‘moderate’ MPs too, such as Rachel Reeves, Jonny Reynolds and Ian Murray, and maintained some element of continuity by re-appointing Jonathan Ashworth, Luke Pollard, Nick Brown, and Baroness Smith to their roles.

However, most of his appointments were from the ‘soft left’ and were MPs that had served as junior members of Corbyn’s frontbench both quietly and effectively.

Starmer has struck a clever balance here, appointing MPs that had worked under Corbyn, but not necessarily supported him, and that the majority of Labour MPs will be happy to get behind.

The appointment of Anneliese Dodds as Shadow Chancellor is the perfect example here. Starmer could have promoted a more high-profile MP to the role, such as Reeves or Yvette Cooper, but both are more economically centrist than Starmer and could have been divisive appointments.

Instead the new leader chose the comparatively less well-known Dodds for the role, who had quietly built up a reputation for herself as a talented Shadow Financial Secretary. Indeed, John McDonnell was quick to give his successor his “full support” and praise the work she did in his team.

Other notable examples include promotions for Preet Gill, Louise Haigh and Marsha de Cordova.

Policy platform

Although we are only days into Starmer’s premiership, he has thus far tried to make good on his ‘unity’ pledge as well as his promise to work to eradicate anti-Semitism ‘from day one’. His first act as leader was to write an apology letter to the Jewish Board of Deputies, and later in the week he held a follow up call with Jewish leaders, both of which were welcomed by the Jewish community.

In fact, the only candidates for Leader or Deputy Leader not given a role in his Shadow Cabinet were those that didn’t sign the Board of Deputies’ pledge.

While Starmer will inevitably have to navigate coronavirus-related challenges over the next few months, we do expect that the policy pledges that he set out during his leadership campaign will form the basis of his early policy platform.

He has been true to his word thus far.

A Corbyn-lite approach

Starmer wants to focus on economic justice through increased taxes, social justice through the abolition of universal credit and climate justice through the support of a Green New Deal. He believes that “public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders” and supports common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water, he wants to strengthen the trade union movement and workplace rights, and he wants to devolve power to the regions.

In foreign policy, in an indirect attack on Tony Blair, his firm commitment is “no more illegal wars”. He wants to introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act, put human rights at the heart of foreign policy, and review all UK arms sales.

These policies reflect many of his predecessor’s manifesto commitments and would not have looked out of place as Long-Bailey’s pledges.

He has also largely kept the structure of the Shadow Cabinet that Corbyn created, even maintaining the position of Shadow Employment Rights and Protections Secretary as a senior frontbench role.

Essentially, Starmer is adopting a Corbyn-lite approach; he is not a return to New Labour.

Therefore businesses looking to engage with the Labour leader and his team will need to be recognise this and tailor their approaches accordingly.

We expect he will be much more open to meeting with businesses than Corbyn was, who only engaged with a trusted select few.

To be successful in engaging with him, businesses will need to demonstrate their commitment to Starmer’s core values; by paying their full share of tax, by having clear net zero goals, and by treating their workforce fairly.

Only then are they likely to be able to influence Labour’s agenda.

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