Civil service grandees call for Brexit transition extension

The coronavirus crisis means next step in process should be postponed

April 22, 2020
 Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

The Covid-19 pandemic is a health and economic emergency, imposing immediate burdens and threatening lasting consequences as yet unknown. Much is rightly being done to minimise the fallout. The entire apparatus of the state is being put to the task of combatting the virus.

Yet despite this, the UK government risks compounding a medical crisis with one of its own making. The Brexit transition—which preserves the legal status quo—is set to expire on 31st December. At that point Britain will be forced to adjust to a new trading and regulatory settlement, with all the disruption that entails. The UK government only has until July to request an extension from the EU, yet No 10 insists that despite coronavirus it will do no such thing. In the face of an unpredicted pandemic, is this justified?

In the view of several civil and diplomatic service grandees, the answer is no. When I spoke to our former permanent representative in Brussels Ivan Rogers, along with three former permanent secretaries who between them ran the Brexit department, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office, their position was firm. The UK risks adding to an epidemiological calamity with a trading one. Crucially, it was suggested that the public would accept a delay to avoid this outcome.

According to Philip Rycroft, former chief civil servant in the Brexit department, “it is simple common sense to ask for an extension of the transition period.” When you factor in “the huge economic uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic,” a postponement is essential.

Bob Kerslake, former head of the home civil service and later Labour Party adviser, agreed—as did Gus O’Donnell, Kerslake’s predecessor, who said “More time could lead to a better outcome for both sides.” “Clearly there has been much less time for negotiation than could ever have been anticipated.”

The argument is about basic prudence. When the UK left the EU on 31st January it had a Withdrawal Agreement in place but most of the future terms were yet to be agreed. The transition was the slot for doing this, but even the initial 11-month timeline was considered optimistic. Since then, coronavirus has come to occupy nearly all government bandwidth and even debilitated the prime minister.

“The timetable for delivering a trade deal was already extremely ambitious. The lost time as a consequence of Covid-19 has moved this from being ambitious to almost impossible,” said Kerslake.

Yet the government insists that not only will it not request an extension, it will refuse any EU request for one. “We will not ask to extend,” said a Downing Street official in a recent briefing, “and, if the EU asks, we will say no.”


Read more: Chris Grey argues that the question is not just whether to extend the Brexit transition, but for how long

_________________ This would be troubling enough pre-crisis. Though the UK and the EU start from a position of close alignment, that does not expedite matters, since the aim is not to remain closely aligned but to significantly diverge. Preparing for the new frictions imposed on vast quantities of EU-UK trade, installing the proper customs procedures and staff, not to mention replicating the regulatory agencies the UK is leaving, is inevitably time consuming. A “no-deal two”—leaving the transition with only the skeleton of the Withdrawal Agreement in place—was already a risk.

But the pandemic has given the case for delay even more force. The UK government has no spare capacity; it is scrambling to ease the burden on the NHS and facilitate the production of new ventilators, while spending enormous sums to avoid a depression. The direct consequences of the crisis will last for months and conceivably well into 2021; the indirect consequences much longer still.

Kerslake said “Given the severe economic impact of the pandemic, the priority must be to avoid any more economic shocks and focus on the recovery. In the circumstances, the public would accept a delay and I am genuinely puzzled why the government hasn't moved to confirm this.”

There are actually signs already of this public acceptance. According to a recent Focaldata poll, two-thirds of Britons—and almost half of Leave voters—want an extension so that the government can “focus 100 per cent of its energy on dealing with coronavirus for the rest of the year.” Further, there have been signs of softening attitudes among prominent Brexiteers. Isabel Oakeshott, the pro-Brexit journalist, has suggested that she is now open to extension. Unlike with extensions of Article 50, there is no chance that Brexit does not happen; we are already technically outside the EU.

The question now is whether the government will volte-face. There is still time and a Boris Johnson U-turn is not unheard of; the Withdrawal Agreement was struck only after the prime minister reneged on one of his red lines. Though the PM is not currently working he is likely to be fully back at the helm before the 31st June deadline. Otherwise the decision will fall to those leading in his absence. There is also the possibility that the deadline passes and a fudge is agreed later in the year, but it would be unwise to rely on this.

The last former government official I sounded out was Rogers, who famously resigned in protest and is now one of our leading Brexit commentators. He said we should not expect a change in policy, adding that, owing to the unlikelihood of a deal being struck, “HMG is in reality forcing firms which are facing an existential crisis over Covid-19 right now—and for the next several months—to prepare simultaneously for a no-deal exit at year end.”

This “carries risks of seriously exacerbating a very difficult economic position at that point, and of disrupting supply chains across the channel at a time they may be critical for the UK.” The most problematic outcome would be impact on medical supplies, especially when essential equipment is reportedly running low and countries around the world are imposing export restrictions.

The government’s current course may not hold. Ministers, though at times exhibiting dire incompetence, are now sincerely trying to minimise the consequences of this dreadful virus. They may look at the prospect of further chaos—and the attendant public criticism—and baulk. But the sooner the government requests an extension, and of the full two-year length, the better. As O’Donnell put it, delay remains the “sensible” option.