Any tinkering with government departments should be done with cautionby Tim Durrant / December 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
Now that Boris Johnson has a clear majority in parliament, his attention may turn to the shape of government. His manifesto, unlike that of most other parties running in the election, made no commitments to creating new, or getting rid of existing, ministries. His immediate predecessor made big changes to the landscape of Whitehall: Theresa May created departments for Brexit and trade, while merging the energy and climate change department established by Gordon Brown into the business department. David Cameron, on the other hand, was deliberately cautious about making big changes, seeing it as a distraction from getting on with governing. Which model will Johnson follow?
There are some obvious options if Johnson does want to make changes. May established the Department for Exiting the EU to show she was serious about getting Brexit done. That was Johnson’s campaign slogan for the election and, assuming he is successful at completing the first phase of the process and the UK leaves the EU at the end of January, will there still be a need for a Brexit-focused department?
One option could be to move the officials working on the next phase of the talks with Brussels into the Cabinet Office, where they will have a more direct reporting line to the prime minister. This would avoid the issues that May faced when she initially gave a fair amount of leeway to David Davis, her first Brexit secretary. Her premiership was characterised by a gradual reining-in of DExEU as she realised how important it was to oversee the negotiations closely. Johnson should avoid the same mistake.
Alternatively, he may want to merge DExEU with May’s other internationally-focused department, the Department for International Trade. Bringing together the two departments responsible for negotiating the UK’s future trade deals would force ministers to confront trade-offs. These are inherent in choosing between a closer economic relationship with the EU or with other countries including the US and Australia. But the future relationship with the EU is supposed to cover more than trade—the political declaration setting out both sides’ broad ambitions includes plans for future cooperation on security, data-sharing, academic research and more. As DIT is yet to sign any genuinely new trade deals, there is no guarantee that it…