Brexit: Whitehall churn means government may never be as ready again for no deal, says IfG

Written by Richard Johnstone on 5 June 2019 in News
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Civil servants could be either ‘too fresh or too jaded’ to maximise no-deal Brexit preparation for October, highlights think tank

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The Institute for Government has warned that the government may never be as ready for a no-deal Brexit as it was when the UK was originally meant to leave the European Union at the end of March.

In a blog post, IfG Brexit programme director Joe Owen highlighted that staff shifts across government, including Philip Rycroft’s departure as the permanent secretary of the Department for Exiting the European Union and his replacement by Clare Moriarty, which left the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs looking for new chief, meant expertise would be lost ahead of the UK’s new planned exit date at the end of October. Some candidates for the Conservative party leadership, including frontrunner Boris Johnson, have said that if they are unable to reach a revised exit deal with the EU by then, they would leave without an agreement.

“Whether it is responsibility for critical no deal plans, key pieces of Brexit legislation or important policy positions, the architects of much of the UK government’s Brexit preparations are unlikely to be in the same place by the autumn,” Owen highlighted. “Inevitably, this means that the UK government is unlikely to be as ready for no deal in October as it was back in March.”


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Among the other likely departures, it has been reported Karen Wheeler, the director general for border co-ordination at HM Revenue and Customs who has worked on ensuring there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, is to leave, while Justin Russell, who was in in charge of no-deal Brexit preparations at the Ministry of Justice, has been put forward as the next chief probation inspector.

Owen said that, as most senior managers in the civil service change jobs after two years, “many of the 16,000 civil servants working on Brexit will now be looking for a change of scenery”.

“By October, with the Brexit deadline rapidly approaching, the officials in some of the key no deal jobs could have been in post for little more than a few months,” he said.

“The internal civil service jobs market means that if you want to ‘get on’ then you need ‘move on’, but the rate of turnover also reflects the fact that many officials were worked into the ground in the run up to 29 March. Perhaps this is the price of public service, but the prospect of building up to another Brexit deadline is, understandably, not that appetising for some.”

In addition, Owen added that the standing down of the Operation Yellowhammer contingency planning operation for dealing with the worst-case scenarios resulting from a no-deal Brexit also meant that the knowledge built up by civil servants on no-deal secondments would be lost as they return to normal duties.

“They will need to be resurrected and re-staffed, and earlier rounds of staff training will need to be repeated. At the same time, the energy and focus of those still in post on no deal jobs may be reduced second time round,” he warned.

Businesses could be even less ready for no deal in October, as firms that prepared for a no deal exit that never happened will be reluctant to do it again.

“Perhaps a bullish and bold Brexiteer prime minister will be able to galvanise business and the civil service to prepare for no deal,” he said. “Or perhaps, if they also boast about renegotiating a Brexit deal, they will just be seen as crying wolf. Either way, they are likely to inherit a set of plans for no deal that are not much more developed than they were in March – and may well be overseen by a set of faces that are either too fresh or too jaded for the task.”

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Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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