Bickering ministers provide no leadership. But officials have logic on their side, and could prevail in the endby Sue Cameron / September 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Any analysis of Whitehall’s attitude to Brexit must start with that giant among mandarins, Olly Robbins. One of the tallest men in the British establishment, Robbins is chief Brexit adviser to Theresa May and architect of the Chequers plan for future relations with Europe. He is powerful, punctilious and eminently capable. He is also steely. Up before the European Scrutiny Committee of MPs in early September, he showed his mettle. Invited to accept that Chequers was dead, Robbins gave his inquisitors a hard stare. The proposal, he said, was “credible and sensible.” It remained “the government’s collective position.”
The exchange highlights what has bedevilled Whitehall’s efforts to plan for Brexit: the clash between ideologically driven politicians pursuing an assortment of Brexit dreams and officials charged with the practical business of implementing them. The killer has been politicians’ failure to agree on what they want. Civil servants—the clue’s in the name—ultimately do what their political masters tell them. Yet ministers have been too busy infighting to offer clear guidance. As a summer of cabinet resignations has given way to an autumn of leadership chatter, the servants can’t even be sure who the masters will be for long.
This “lack of political leadership” is, in the view of one Whitehall grandee, the worst of the problems facing the civil service. “It is formidably difficult to have to try to manage the huge complexity of Brexit without any clear understanding of what it means and without a stable political framework in which to operate.”
Robert Armstrong, former cabinet secretary to Margaret Thatcher, says he feels a sense of shame: “politically I don’t think I’ve ever known such a shambles,” he said. “Civil servants don’t necessarily like what they are asked to do but they always do it as well as they can. Yet the chips are set against us. We don’t know what is wanted and we’re making it up as we go along.”
The Brexit department has many practical problems of its own. The average age of the staff is 30 and turnover a whopping 53 per cent. One visitor reports that the chatter between meetings was all: “when did you arrive? I’m leaving on Friday.” There is no collective memory and little experience.
But the deeper…