David Davis: Old hands believe civil service can manage Brexit

Written by Suzannah Brecknell on 18 January 2017 in News

Brexit secretary insists claims Whitehall doesn’t have the resourcing to cope with leaving the European Union are driven by officials keen to increase their departmental budgets​

The minister charged with overseeing the UK’s exit from the European Union has dismissed claims that the civil service needs more staff to implement Brexit and subsequent trade negotiations, and suggested senior officials were positioning to increase their budgets by raising resource concerns.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, David Davis acknowledged the magnitude of the task facing Whitehall, but insisted it was not insurmountable.

“Of course it’s a big job … it probably is unprecedented, but I've seen pretty much every cabinet sec whose been in office for the last couple of decades and they think it's possible, they think it’s doable,” he said.

Extra Brexit cash not enough for the Foreign Office, MPs warn 
Lord O'Donnell: Brexit will be difficult – but this is what the civil service does 
Brexit could cost departments £65m a year to implement, says Institute for Government


Interviewer John Humphrys had told Davis he had spoken to “very senior officials who said: ‘We’re not going to be able to do this, we haven’t got the people’.”
Davis said the former top officials he had spoken to were “people who know the civil service inside out, and they're not people who are now making a bid for more budget.”
He continued: “I think [Lord] Robin Butler  [cabinet secretary from 1988 to 1998] said – our civil service can cope with World War II. It can easily cope with this.”
Davis’ comments come after unions, MPs and the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake all called for extra funding to help the civil service implement Brexit.
Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, speaking to CSW’s sister publication The House magazine last year, said the civil service did not have enough staff and money to implement Brexit, but he was confident that they were “gearing up” to cope.
Asked whether he thought the civil service was ready – both in size and in skills – for the challenge of Brexit, O’Donnell said: “There’s a simple short answer to that, and it’s no.”

He continued, however: “Nobody should be under any illusions, this is an enormous job. They are in the process of building themselves up, gearing themselves up to be ready for it. They will get there.”

He added that since Brexit “imposes a lot of extra requirements on the civil service,” that means a choice for the government between whether it “chooses to beef up [the civil service] – they’re going to have to put a lot of resources into delivering Brexit – or stop doing some of the things they are doing at the minute.” 

About the author

Suzannah Brecknell is Civil Service World's senior reporter. She tweets as @SuzannahCSW

Share this page
Editor's Pick
Promote as primary content
Not Promoted

Share this page

Further reading in our policy hubs


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.


Bob (not verified)

Submitted on 18 January, 2017 - 14:14
So after the last 6 years with the Government attacking pay, jobs (about 90,000 lost since 2010), pensions, and conditions with the civil service compensation scheme slashed yet again (2010 and 2016) they just say implement Brexit on top of everything else. Does that seem fair to everyone?

Donald Henderson (not verified)

Submitted on 18 January, 2017 - 14:33
David Davis should be invited to reflect on the fact that the civil service quintupled in size during the Second World War. It did not deliver war time results on the basis of peace time resources.

HMT (not verified)

Submitted on 18 January, 2017 - 15:37
I think Lord O'Donnell's views are a little more contemporaneous than Lord Butler's, and clearly in contradiction to David Davis' view....perhaps Lord O'Donnell was one he didn't speak to having caught "pretty much" all the others?! The Civil Service tends to make anything "doable" for Governments but there are issues around how well do you want it done and how much stress do you intend civil servants involved to bear?

rick aston (not verified)

Submitted on 19 January, 2017 - 08:28
A bit worrying that the top people on Brexit are at loggerheads with each other, we've only got one shot at this, c'mon people pull together and get something right for once.

Contact the author

The contact details for the Civil Service World editorial team are available on our About Us page.

Related Articles

Related Sponsored Articles