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 1964 and disbanded quickly after. Even in recent decades there are more than a handful of examples. One cited to me several times during my research for this piece was New Labour’s ill-fated Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which came into existence in 2007 and disappeared in 2009.
So the civil service is used to the churn: its former head Robin Butler told me this is its “stock-in-trade.” But what makes this time different is the fraught atmosphere in Westminster. Recent events prove that temperature is at boiling point. Brexit has cleaved British politics down the middle. Any decision on the future of DExEU and DIT has a deep political dimension.
The backdrop is deep dissatisfaction on Whitehall. Stewart Wood, former Chief Advisor in No 10, told me that DExEU has long had “low morale,” and that there are “no powerful people with stakes in keeping it going and making it a permanent fixture.”
According to him, the Brexit Department should be disbanded after March 2019. “Once we go into transition I am not sure there is a reason for DEXEU to exist as a separate department. We will have left the EU.” This view was popular with various experts I spoke to. The appointment of Dominic Raab as Davis’s replacement did not seem to have changed their minds.
Former senior civil servant Andrew Greenway agreed DExEU could have a short lifespan: “Given the fragility of the department he is joining, Raab will do well to beat his current record tenure in a ministerial job—seven months.”
“There will be ‘the mother of all Whitehall rucks’ as departments wrangle for control”—Stewart Wood
But winding down DExEU will not be straightforward. Politics could make the process very difficult indeed.
“The functional need for DExEU will stop when the bulk of the negotiation is over,” said Calum Miller, former Principal Private Secretary to Head of the UK Civil Service, now at the Oxford Blavatnik School of Government, “but the tricky part for a future prime minister will be declaring the moment when the job is done.”
The problem here is one of optics. For there is a strong suspicion throughout Westminster that DExEU and the DIT were set up so promptly by May as a statement of intent to her Brexiteers. Here was the hard proof, set in bricks and mortar, that Britain was leaving Europe.
But with Leaver accusations swirling round that Britain is now headed for a feeble “Brexit in name only,” winding up the department too soon is a move fraught with political danger. Since the Chequers meet Brexiteers are on very high alert indeed. “Winding up the ministry will be symbolic, so will require the right political circumstances,” said Miller.
If DExEU is wound up, what should happen in Whitehall then? Where should its functions go?
Option one is the Cabinet Office. This was the argument made to me by Robert Armstrong, former Head of the Home Civil Service, who said that what is now DExEU could join with the European Secretariat located there. It’s a smart thought, and comes from a man with deep experience of the inner workings of Whitehall.
But this would also be deeply politically contentious. Last year Olly Robbins, Permanent Secretary at DExEU, moved to the Cabinet Office to run negotiations for May’s team. There is a widespread perception that Davis was subsequently sidelined—and we know how that turned out. Armstrong even told me that this option should be considered if the prime minister wants to bring Brexit “under her own control.” There is a risk of it looking like a power grab.
But Armstrong was not the only interviewee to make the suggestion. He is a grandee of the civil service, running it decades back. But more current Whitehall figures recommended much the same thing, including Miller, who was a public servant far more recently. According to him the CO should integrate “the key staff with knowledge of the UK’s relationship with the EU and its member states.”
If there is going to be yet more upheaval then this does make some sense. It was the CO that coordinated much of the government’s business with Europe before the referendum, so there is a precedent. Plus a Cabinet Office team could in theory work as a neutral “broker” between government departments fighting for more money and resources on Brexit. Wood described a scenario where the lead negotiator is based in the CO and tells “DEFRA they have to give on X if they want Y, or give up A so that BEIS can have B.” There is a clear logic there.
But that does not mean there is consensus. Stephen Wall, who held a host of roles in the civil service and worked his way up to Ambassador to the EU, told me the foreign office would make a better home for DExEU. Is there a case for this too? Absolutely. But it would be just as controversial. Sue Cameron, a journalist who specialises in Whitehall, told me that Foreign Office officials are widely seen as pro-Remain. The Brexit hardliners would be furious if DExEU’s functions ended up there. Their concerns will have grown only more serious since Johnson’s resignation. The FCO is now headed by Jeremy Hunt, a former Remainer.
Wall was clearly worried: “All this is uncharted territory, so it poses big challenges for departments.” In veteran diplomat-speak, this counts as a stark warning.
There are more problems with the foreign office suggestion. Former Assistant Director at the DIT David Henig told me diplomacy and negotiations should be kept separate. What would he recommend instead? “DexEU should be merged with DIT from March 2019.” This suggestion was another common one.
When the moment does come to wind down the departments, an almighty row will ensue as different parties lobby for more control of the outstanding negotiations. Wood said that there will be “the mother of all Whitehall rucks” as departments wrangle for control. With cabinet discipline currently non-existent, this will not be a pretty sight.
Whichever option is pursued the administrative crunch will be abrupt. And the level of upheaval cannot be overstated.
The civil service is used to dealing with uncertainty: Armstrong told me that it “has always prided itself on being able to respond to whatever challenges its political masters throw at it.” But what’s happening now is quite simply on another level. Since Brexit the churn has been immense. According to Lewis Lloyd at the Institute for Government, “it’s in the thousands for people getting moved around. And then there are people who’ve gone from never having to think about the EU ever in their job, to actually now they have to think in the context of Brexit, when that wasn’t originally part of their role.” Add to this now the change in leadership with Raab’s arrival. He will need to be brought up to speed and a learning curve is inevitable on both sides.
“The civil service has always prided itself on being able to respond to whatever challenges its political masters throw at it”—Robert Armstrong
Any restructuring of DExEU or the DIT will, Lloyd conceded, mean this initial period of upheaval is followed in quick succession by yet another. Changes in the machinery of government, said former senior civil servant Andrew Greenway, “are a pain and they massively slow down delivery.” He bemoaned a “profound lack of political leadership, direction and decision making on Brexit.”
Worse still, going forward mandarins aren’t even guaranteed government support. This administration has not covered itself in glory over recent months when it comes to the civil service. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who resigned with Davis, was forced to apologise publicly after comments made at a Prospect lunch. Recalling the conversation in parliament, he implied that Treasury officials had distorted economic analysis to shape Brexit policy. His words were—rightly—met with outrage.
But political disdain for civil servants does not stop with this most public example. Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested to me that there are some “unreconcilables” in Whitehall who should not be allowed to work on British departure at all. The notion that civil servants are frustrating Brexit has been allowed to take hold.
Progress is certainly very slow. Britain is stuck, unsure what it wants from Brexit and yet to put forward a coherent proposal on the future relationship. But this is the fault of our politicians, who have treated a momentous constitutional event with dire complacency.
Beneath them are civil servants trying to do their best with an appalling hand. The next round of restructuring will subject to them to yet another challenge. They must be supported by the politicians forcing that change through.
As Armstrong says, civil servants are used to coping with overhauls. The next one will go a whole lot more smoothly if the government can keep them on side. If it cannot, the implications will not just be felt on Whitehall. The focus right now is on cabinet ructions but the drama doesn’t stop there. Look at what’s happening beneath and the true scale of the Brexit challenge really starts to become clear.