Brexit is the story that rolling news was invented for. Whether the latest word from Brussels, the chaos that was Monday’s pantomime rush to secure a deal on the Irish border, or the DUP variously playing the role of either hero or villain depending on your viewpoint, it fills all the slots, on the hour, every hour. And on Wednesday there were more surprises: a Brexit secretary admitting that, for all the gravity of the situation, the government hasn’t bothered to produce forecasts on the likely impact of our departure on various sectors of the economy.
David Davis is bluffing on Brexit. And now it’s clear for all to see.
With this plot and character-rich drama endlessly replenishing itself, there is little room for other developments of note; not just in the media but within government itself. This week Louise Casey, the former integration tsar, attacked May for having done “absolutely nothing” about community cohesion a year on from the review she undertook for government. On Sunday Alan Milburn resigned as chair of the social mobility commission, along with all its other commissioners, stating he had no confidence in the government’s ability to address social inequality.
Social inequality and a lack of community cohesion are long-term problems facing the United Kingdom. They won’t get better without action. That both Casey and Milburn have brought the same complaints to the fore at the same time is unsurprising in the context of the current political squall.
Milburn’s letter to the prime minister warned that Brexit means the government “does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality … I have little hope of the current government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain. It seems unable to commit to the future of the commission as an independent body or to give due priority to the social mobility challenge facing our nation.”
This lack of bandwidth has plagued our politics ever since the EU referendum result. Problems unrelated to Brexit continue to haunt Britain. The housing crisis shows no sign of abating: the housing charity Shelter estimates that 128,000 children will spend Christmas homeless, and in temporary accommodation. There are more than twice as many people sleeping rough as when the Conservatives came into power, and life expectancy is falling in some areas of the UK due to inequality and poor health. Local residents and survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy have told me they feel Brexit has overshadowed the coverage of their continued hardship, with the majority of people still not rehoused and the Grenfell inquiry beginning next week.
The lack of bandwidth has plagued our politics ever since the EU referendum result.
The government and media are Brexit-obsessed. Brexit makes the headlines every day without fail, even when nothing has happened. Our exit from the EU is incredibly important, but it’s not the only story in the UK that needs to be told, and certainly not the only matter that needs attention, action and legislation.
On Monday programme presenter Nick Robinson acidly tweeted: “Labour takes poll lead as Jeremy Corbyn chooses to let Tories implode over Brexit whilst he talks about just about anything else,” linking to a recent tweet from the Labour leader.
That “just about anything else” was a letter to Theresa May about the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, calling for an international arms embargo and for the prime minister to lead international efforts to forge a political solution to the crisis. And the Labour press team had in fact posted a statement by Corbyn on Brexit two hours before Robinson’s tweet.
This episode reveals just how narrow the tunnel vision around Brexit has become.
Polling firm IpsosMori last week published its some of their regular “issues index”, which measures public sentiment: what people care about, how prevalent issues are in the public’s mind, and what type of people care about which political problems. Ipsos identified five “tribes”: one of which they labelled “bothered by Brexit”. It consists of both leavers and remainers, for whom Brexit is the most important issue.
It sometimes feels as though the entire media falls into this group, but according to Ipsos, only 26 percent of the public do. “Young, urban and unengaged”, who care most about housing and job insecurity, were the biggest grouping, at 29 percent. Yes, a good quarter of the public care very deeply about Brexit. But an awful lot of people just don’t.
When May stood on the steps of Downing Street and told us she was calling a snap election, we were told it would be a Brexit election. Our extrication from the EU would be the main issue. But it was housing and education that turned out to be the big vote winners, and the youth vote played a particularly important role.
The worry is that for the next few years, media and politics become so Brexit-obsessed that other looming problems aren’t fixed because the government won’t spare the bandwidth. That could lead to people becoming even more politically disengaged as issues they care about are ignored in favour of what they see as an elite preoccupation. Brexit is important, but so are poverty, inequality, and the economy. The media needs to expand its focus. And the government has to find a way to walk and chew gum, doing the everyday work of governing while also thrashing out a Brexit settlement. — The Guardian.