There will be a lot of tired people in Whitehall over the coming monthsby Anand Menon / January 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
The resignation of Ivan Rogers, British Permanent Representative to the European Union, and swift appointment of his successor, Tim Barrow, has focused attention on the role of the civil service in delivering Brexit. While the media has focused on political squabbles over the issue, it is worth sparing a thought for those officials who, ultimately, will be charged with achieving the objectives their political masters set.
The first challenge they will face is dealing with an immense task in a short period of time. Rogers points out in the letter he addressed to his staff that we do not yet know what objectives the government will lay out for Brexit. I do not think that this line was intended as the kind of criticism of the government that many observers have taken it to be. Brexit is a massive undertaking and figuring out what would work best for this country requires a great deal of careful consideration.
Be this as it may, the fact is that officials are under immense time pressure. First, many of them are engaged in carrying out analyses on the basis of which government policy will probably be based. Thereafter, they will have two years to carry out one of the, if not the most complex set of negotiations in civil service history. There will be a lot of very tired people in Whitehall in the months to come.
And this will need to be done in a febrile environment in which officials seem to have become legitimate targets in the political blame game. The attacks on Rogers are evidence enough of this new mood. To pick one example, in the wake of Rogers’s resignation Iain Duncan Smith said he could not be trusted, and that his resignation letter was “verging on the pompous.” That the civil service will need to tread carefully in dealing with this most sensitive of political issues is abundantly clear, and was hinted at by Rogers himself via his admonishment to his staff to “never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power.”
Third, Brexit will not only be technically but also administratively complex. Dealing with the European Union has always been a challenge in this respect. It involves defining clear political objectives and coordinating many different branches of government to achieve those ends. In addition, Brexit will require coordination with the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.