Jolly Olly: the man with the Brexit plan. Photo: SIMON DAWSON/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

The Brexit chaos engulfing Whitehall

Bickering ministers provide no leadership. But officials have logic on their side, and could prevail in the end
September 14, 2018

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 problems were revealed by an Institute for Government (IfG) report, which showed how the roots of the chaos engulfing Whitehall are more political than administrative; it reads like a cross between Yes, Minister and Kafka. The IfG finds ministers pursuing their own agendas, refusing to share information across Whitehall and imposing inordinate levels of secrecy to prevent cabinet colleagues finding out their plans. Some documents were so highly classified that officials had to read them in specially designated rooms or in the permanent secretary’s office. The IfG dismisses claims that clandestine procedures are necessary to protect the UK negotiating position with Brussels, which already knows the options that London confronts. The real reason for all the secrecy, which keeps not only MPs but mandarins in the dark, is to avoid political embarrassment at home.

Despite having to operate in half-light, Whitehall nobly continues its scramble to be ready. There are now some 7,000 officials working on 300 Brexit “workstreams” across 20 departments, with provision to recruit another 9,000 staff at a cost of £1.5bn. Will it be enough to pull our Brexit irons out of the fire? Andrew Cahn, formerly the supremo in charge of promoting UK trade and investment, says emphatically that it will not. He says many additional staff will be needed: “Whitehall is woefully unprepared not just for a no-deal Brexit but even for a negotiated Brexit.” He is adamant that this is “not Whitehall’s fault” but that of the politicians who have “failed to take decisions in time.” In long years in the service he has never seen anything like this: “it’s a mess. It’s pathetic.”

Yet there is an alternative and more upbeat take on the outlook for officials. For all the political sound and fury, some are simply relieved that Chequers finally offers concrete proposals that have been agreed by the cabinet. As Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the Government Economic Service, says: “it gives civil servants something to work on.” She adds that for some in Whitehall, particularly the young, Brexit is “fun.” To have a ringside seat for one of the biggest government projects ever undertaken is professionally fascinating and even exhilarating.

These are not the first words to come to mind when you think of preparing for a disorderly, cliff-edge Brexit: the provisions for stockpiling medicines, food and ensuring Portaloos are available should the roads into Dover become hopelessly jammed. One thing is certain: should there still be a meltdown followed by a grand inquiry into what went wrong, the paper trail will clearly show that Whitehall gave ministers due warning of the risks.

Yet it may not come to that. As we hurtle towards the March 2019 deadline, some Brexiteers are quietly acknowledging the need to compromise, and the noisiest critics of Chequers have abjectly failed to come up with any plan of their own. Meanwhile, Brussels is sounding more conciliatory. The political mobsters may yet find that Big Olly’s Chequers deal, albeit reworked, is an offer they can’t refuse. The civil service will then have converted its darkest hour into its finest.