A gull flies by the river Thames backed by the silhouette of the Palace of Westminster that houses the Houses of Parliament in central London on January 26, 2019. - Despite the humiliating rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, Britain is no closer to knowing the end result of its vote to leave the European Union. A raft of amendments to be voted on by MPs on Tuesday threaten to further muddy the waters as the clock ticks down to Britain's scheduled departure from the EU on March 29. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
MPs packed up for the day at the House of Commons after just four hours of debate on Wednesday © AFP

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On Wednesday afternoon, normally one of the busiest days of the parliamentary week, the House of Commons adjourned at 3.27pm.

The fact that MPs packed up for the day after just four hours of debate was largely ignored by the media. But it is the latest indication of how Brexit has brought normal business in Westminster and Whitehall to a standstill.

In some ways, this is no surprise. So much depends on whether Theresa May can get a Brexit deal approved by MPs that the mountain of accompanying Brexit legislation (on agriculture, fisheries, financial services etc) has been put on hold.

But there is another factor. Britain’s system of government is now so dominated by Brexit that ministers and officials have limited capacity to consider anything else.

“The politicians are completely distracted by Brexit and the civil servants are increasingly taxed by preparations for no deal,” says Dr Emily Andrews, associate director at the Institute for Government. “Many major domestic policy issues facing the country are not being addressed.”

Dr Andrews cites numerous examples of this. A green paper on the reform of social care — originally due in October 2017 and one of the biggest public policy challenges facing the UK — is nowhere to be seen.

Ministers have not yet published a promised white paper on internet safety — also a matter of growing public concern.

The government lacks an over-arching strategy to tackle the recent surge in knife crime. “There are bits and bobs going on,” says Dr Andrews, “but for something as serious as this you need a ‘whole of government’ approach and there just isn’t the bandwidth for that.”

Above all, the government lacks a strategy for dealing with the squeeze on public services that an ageing population will inevitably bring, while managing increasing public expectations. “If it wasn’t for Brexit, that would be the biggest issue of the day,” says Dr Andrews.

The government is not completely paralysed. Ministers recently produced a long-term plan on National Health Service funding. The Department for Education last week published a long-awaited strategy on teacher recruitment and retention.

But Brexit is sucking up more and more capacity in Westminster and Whitehall. Some 4,000 civil servants are being moved from their day jobs to focus on no deal. The House of Lords is next week tackling 19 complex No-Deal regulations but that is “almost the entirety of its business”.

In her Times column this week, Rachel Sylvester notes how the rise in expulsions of troubled pupils from mainstream schools — and the failure of government to respond — is contributing to the surge in knife crime. As she puts it: “Whitehall is stumbling in the Brexit fog while children are stabbing each other in the street.”

Further reading

Labour’s customs union proposal for Brexit might just work

“All of this points to a situation where, under Labour’s plan, British civil servants are welcomed — even warmly — into meetings with their EU counterparts. Their views will be politely — even eagerly — listened to. And then they will leave, and the political calculations of the EU27 will determine what goes into any subsequent trade deal. The UK will be given some kind of a say, for sure, and the EU will most likely listen. But it does not have to act.” (Alan Beattie, FT)

Brexit turmoil: five ways British MPs misunderstand the European Union

“Many British MPs struggle to understand that EU politics is largely defined by compromise. They see Brussels through the lens of their own confrontational system, where two parties dominate in first-past-the-post elections and are heavily whipped to toe the party line. Many continental European countries are run by coalition governments and parliaments focuses on problem-solving. They more readily understand the give and take in Brussels.” (The Conversation)

Why disaster capitalists are praying for a no-deal Brexit

“A no-deal Brexit might offer the regulatory vacuum the Brextremists fantasise about. The public protections people have fought so hard for, that we obtained only through British membership of the EU — preventing water companies from pouring raw sewage into our rivers, power stations from spraying acid rain across the land, chemical companies from contaminating our food — are suddenly at risk.” (George Monbiot, The Guardian)

Hard numbers

Bank of England pulls back on multiple rate rise plans

The Bank of England has retreated from plans for multiple interest rate rises as it sharply downgraded its economic outlook amid mounting Brexit uncertainty and slowing global growth.

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