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The Show Must Go On

22/07/2016 10:07 | Updated 22 July 2016

Uncertainty is the bane of any decision-maker's life, but periods of uncertainty are also when we most need someone to make some decisions.

In our own personal lives, if we don't have a clue about how the future is going to pan out then it is a good excuse to avoid making anything but very short-term decisions. Most often, we just try to put things off, which just adds to the sense of drift.

We are in the midst of incredibly uncertain times in the public policy sphere - and for business leaders, senior civil servants and local government leaders, this makes life very hard.

On one level, our approach to the EU, to citizens of that entity and to trade with it, are all now open question. Strangely, a referendum to decide our future relations with Europe once and for all seems to have done nothing of the sort.

We are going to leave the EU but the terms could range widely; for instance, the ability of current, let alone future, EU migrants to work and live in the UK is contested and uncertain. And beyond precise legal terms much depends on how others respond. Our relationships with our EU neighbours once we are out could still be that of a close friend, or they could turn frosty.

On top of this we have a new prime minister. We don't know which of David Cameron's agendas will be dumped, or at least de-prioritised, by Theresa May.

Some of this is exciting for the policy world. How will the new constellation of forces play out? Will some things some never liked disappear or will other favoured strategies for which much was hoped - like the Life Chances agenda - just fade away?

Less exciting is total uncertainty now on the future funding for public services.

There are two forces pulling in different directions on this at present. Almost all economists agree - and the Office for Budget Responsibility will probably state this formally in its next autumn forecast - that the economy over the next decade will be smaller than it had anticipated as a result of Brexit.

That means for any fiscal stance you need to have a lower deficit and debt. This idea lay behind the pre-Brexit vote comments of George Osborne about the need for an emergency spend-cutting or tax-raising Budget.

On the other hand, if we are heading for a downturn or even a recession as a result of the Leave vote, then we want to keep fiscal policy looser in the short-term, not least as monetary policy cannot do more work given interest rates are already so low. This might mean more generous spending settlements or tax cuts.

Make what you will of these contradictory forces in trying to understand the likely effects on local authority, education and NHS budgets, going forward. Of particular interest to my think tank, NPC, we will want to know how the UK's vast charity sector is affected.

You can then play more of this public guessing game to work out if a new prime minister is likely to axe the 0.7% of GDP target for overseas aid - a huge but possible change from David Cameron's agenda - and redistribute the money to domestic spending and what they might do about the £350m a week promised to the NHS - among other priorities.

Additionally, there is the issue of whether the opposition Labour Party may or may not change its leader and what that will mean.

Then there are the chances of an early election - irrespective of denials of any intention to do so, the upsurge likely in UKIP MPs in any such election (with their new leader), the increased likelihood of Scotland leaving the UK and possible tensions building in Northern Ireland.

At moments like this civil servants have to hunker down and get on with the bits of their job they can pursue.

For some, there will be the excitement of joining the Cabinet Office Brexit unit - to be run at official level by ever-dependable senior civil servant Oliver Robbins. For others, there will be work in similar units within departments. But for most, it is just heads down.

In local government there is no use in speculating about the future. The need for immediate action is if your area showed a degree of fracture and hostility to anyone who sounded like they were from a different country and attempting to understand whether your private sector investment is secure.

Putting on hold bold plans is tempting, but usually makes no sense. The show must go on.

A version of this article was first published in The MJ

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