Brexit will stymie Whitehall for a decade, warns former Blair aide

Written by Jim Dunton on 12 May 2017 in News

Veteran negotiator Jonathan Powell lauds civil service’s post-referendum progress but cautions on remaining skills gaps

Tony Blair’s former chief of staff has forecast that the demands of Brexit will dominate Whitehall’s time for the next 10 years, hampering the potential for other large-scale policy interventions well into the 2020s.

Jonathan Powell, who played a key role in negotiating Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, also questioned the civil service’s capacity to hold its own in the UK’s pending divorce negotiations with the European Union. However he applauded its progress with preparations so far.

In an interview with CSW’s sister magazine The House, Powell said it would be hard to understate the impact of Brexit on Whitehall.

“It's like when you eat a very large lunch,” he said. “All the blood goes to your stomach and that's what's going to happen to the civil service, I can see it already.


“An awful lot of the departments are now focused on dealing with this great big problem and so obviously they can't deal with the other problems, not just civil servants, but politicians too. 

“You look at the Treasury and places like that, the vast majority of civil servants are working on Brexit-related issues and that's going to be the case for, well, certainly the next two years. I would guess with the CFTA, the free trade agreement, it's going to be another – who knows – somewhere between five and 10 years doing the same thing.

“There's an opportunity cost, as in parliament, where legislation is going to be basically about changing our legislation to take hand of Brexit for the next 10 years and they won't be able to do much new legislation on top of that, the same is going to be true of the civil service.”

Powell said that while the civil service’s preparations for Brexit to date had been laudable, there was an urgent need to import European expertise, including bringing back “old lags” with past negotiating experience.

“It’s sensible to have preparation, given this came as a surprise to everyone there had to be a period and the civil service has been doing very well form that point of view, setting up DExEU, trying to work in DExEU to prepare themselves for it,” he said.

“[But] there isn't much relevant European experience in government now.

“The danger, I've noticed, in negotiations during my lifetime, is that you can get the most perfectly prepared position but you're not at all prepared for actually engaging with the other side. You sort of think, ‘we've had difficulty negotiating this position, we can't possibly change it’, when you meet the other it's going to be even more difficult. 

“One of the most challenging bits of this negotiation is you're negotiating with 27 other countries. It's incredibly difficult for the 27 to agree and once they've agreed it's going to be incredibly difficult for them to change their position and that's going to be one of the real challenges from this.”

Powell said Whitehall negotiators would need the skills of his mentor Sir Percy Craddock, the former ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, if they were to truly make a success of the Brexit negotiations. 

“Craddock's First Law of Diplomacy is [that] the hardest negotiations are on your own side,” he said. “When we were doing the Hong Kong negotiations back in the early 1980s, his biggest challenge was negotiating with Mrs Thatcher, negotiating with ExCo, the executive council in HK. The Chinese were relatively easy by comparison. 

“Gerry Adams, with whom I had to negotiate later, said the same thing. He said negotiating with your own band is always the hardest thing to do. 

“So, I think the most difficult negotiations will be on the British government's side with the sort of Tory backbenchers, with different departments, different ministers and, of course, the British public.”

Powell also warned that business sectors had to engage effectively with Whitehall ahead of trade negotiations, otherwise truly damaging outcomes could result.

“I think the real danger of this negotiation is things are done by mistake because the people doing the negotiation don't actually understand how the auto industry works, how the pharma industry works, [and] they make mistakes,” he said.

Powell was speaking ahead of next week’s launch of the Brexit Exchange project, a forum to help UK and European businesses tackle the complex Brexit negotiations that is sponsored by CSW’s parent company, Dods. 


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