Beneath the cabinet drama, the future of the Brexit departments is proving deeply controversialby Alex Dean / July 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Brexit is putting British politics under unprecedented strain. Recent days have demonstrated well the immense pressure being exerted. Yet beneath the immediate headlines there are issues of structural importance that are not going away. This is the story of the great Whitehall headache.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, three days into the job, Theresa May announced that two new government departments would be created. The Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade were essential, the prime minister argued, if Britain was to make a success of Brexit. Arch-Eurosceptic David Davis was chosen to run the former, tasked with oversight of the negotiations. Fellow Brexiteer and former Defence Secretary Liam Fox was enlisted for the latter, which would pursue trade deals with far-flung nations around the globe.
Both departments were the product of some serious Whitehall reorganisation. Summoning up two new ministries out of thin air is a mammoth task. But the restructuring was essential, the argument ran, for Britain to begin its journey out into the world. In total thousands of new civil servants were hired; many more were repurposed. All had to be trained.
The point that it is difficult to create two new departments is not new. But far less attention has been paid to another question, one that is increasingly urgent.
Once Britain has left the European Union in March 2019, once we start to form a new relationship with the EU, what happens to the departments then? Something has to be done with them. The question is whether we need them once we’ve left, and whether to disband them if we don’t. And a great Whitehall row is underway. But what is likely to happen? Crucially, what should happen?
It is understandable that this problem has been overlooked. In early July the government underwent an immense implosion and David Davis resigned. Boris Johnson soon followed. No 10 is struggling to stabilise. But beneath the high political drama are administrative problems causing a great deal of trouble. I asked a series of experts what is going to happen. The consensus? That another immense civil service shakeup is on the way.
The civil service has undergone radical overhaul before. During its centuries-long history dozens of departments have popped into existence and then faded out again. The short-lived Department for Economic Affairs is one example, set up in…