Construction looks set to lose out from the political fragmentation surrounding Brexit – we need fast action to prevent the worst possible consequences
Back in Tony Blair’s first term, when he was following the Tory spending plans, before the Iraq war blotted his copy book, I remember “the death of politics” was announced by some pundit. The right had won the economic argument and the left had won the social argument. Stability and consensus were upon us. All that counted was how competent a party was to govern. If only …
This idea fell by wayside during the recession. The excesses of investment bankers ushered in 10 years of austerity for ordinary folk, while around £375bn of quantitative easing lined the pockets of … the investment bankers. No wonder people looked for new answers to the old political settlement.
The European Parliamentary elections last month showed savagely how our political views have changed. Some on the right have veered far enough in that direction that the Tories can’t keep up. They have been usurped by Farage and his new Brexit party, with 32% of the vote to its 9%. The Labour party, meanwhile, have an unclear Brexit policy under Jeremy Corbyn and got a caning in the poll.
For me, this brings forth the terrifying prospect of a Brexit-Conservative coalition with Nigel Farage as prime minister
And yet, Brexit slices horizontally across all parties in an alliance between free-trade Conservatives in old school ties and disaffected blue-collar workers who feel hard done by and blame it on the EU and particularly immigration.
Time healed some scars from the Lib Dems’ university fees misdemeanour and they are back with a good slice of the vote. The timing is not brilliant as the party effectively has no leader, but neither do the Tories, and Corbyn has a famously stormy relationship with many Labour MPs.
The European elections are not seen as an accurate reflection of how people would vote at a general election (especially as only one-third of people voted) but with the Brexit Party on 32%, Lib Dems on 20%, Labour on 14%, the Greens on 12% and the Conservatives amazingly on 9%, it looks like the two party state is bust. Panic has officially set in at the Conservative and Labour HQs. The Tories deserved to be punished for their shambolic handling of Brexit – but Labour should have been making great gains, not slipping down the polls.
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With five parties holding significant support, the situation in the UK now looks a lot more like European politics (ironically), where two or more minority parties often combine to make a government. For me, this brings forth the terrifying prospect of a Brexit-Conservative coalition with Nigel Farage as prime minister.
If any of you are still with me, you could be forgiven for thinking: “What’s this got to do with construction?” Well, plenty. Our industry’s fortune is inextricably linked to politics, through direct public spending, procurement policy, the success (or otherwise) of economic policies and the attractiveness of inward investment. At the moment, the country is totally out of control, heading for a meltdown and potentially going to crash out of the EU under World Trade Organization rules.
If that happens, watch foreign industrial investors running for the door, watch construction’s industries come crashing down and watch unemployment go through the roof. And, by the way, watch the pain in Ireland and Northern Ireland as the border is re-erected.
We are sleepwalking through the summer, focused on party and party leadership politics, making no progress on forging a consensus for ‘a deal’
We are sleepwalking through the summer, focused on party and party leadership politics, making no progress on forging a consensus for “a deal”. Parliament needs to wake up and get on it. Either the Irish backstop needs to be resolved so May’s deal can be passed or we need to go to a second referendum – May’s deal or remain.
The EU has some thinking to do, too. Across the continent, anti-EU sentiment came to the fore. One further swing to populism and the EU parliament could have a majority to vote it out of existence. The EU should consider two initiatives: one would be a change in the Irish backstop, which would make May’s proposal palatable to Westminster. Another, more fundamental, would be sweeping reforms to the EU itself – to its free movement of people policy, which is causing huge stress in the more economically developed countries, towards the decentralisation of power and to agriculture and fisheries policies. This would ensure its survival and give even more reason for a second UK referendum and a reason for the remain vote to win this time.
And as a final point, if you find all this depressing; cheer up, you’re living through history.
Jack Pringle is principal and EMEA regional director at Perkins+Will