Departments left to 'struggle on their own' over Brexit, National Audit Office head warns

Written by Emilio Casalicchio on 13 July 2017 in News

Sir Amyas Morse goes public with concerns over government's 'uncoordinated' response to leaving the European Union

Theresa May’s plan for Brexit could “fall apart like a chocolate orange” if she fails to hold government departments together through the process, the head of the National Audit Office has warned.

In a highly unusual intervention, Sir Amyas Morse said he was yet to see a unified approach from ministers rather than simply “vague” assurances.

Morse said he had demanded to see a ministerial plan to guide departments through the structural and legal challenges facing the UK as it quits the EU, but had so far been denied. 


In a rare interview with reporters which illustrates his level of concern, he said: “Leaving the EU is a negotiation.

“It means the results are uncertain and [departments] need to be fast and flexible and react in a unified way. We have an issue there because we have departmental government.

“What we don’t want to find is that at the first tap it falls apart like a chocolate orange. It needs to be coming through like a cricket ball.”

Morse  added: “There has to be strong integration. To have things start to go wrong and then say, ‘Oops, perhaps we might have to be a bit better integrated’ really is second best.”

He said he “wouldn’t be speaking like this” if he thought the right co-ordinated approach to Brexit across Whitehall was in place.

“It is symptomatic of whether the government is really able to drive this across departments or whether we leave each department to struggle with it on their own,” he warned.

It comes as the NAO warned the new system for handling customs checks might not be ready by the time of Brexit – putting tax collection, international trade and the UK’s international reputation at risk.

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Emilio Casalicchio reports for CSW's sister site,,where a version of this story first appeared

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Norman Strauss (not verified)

Submitted on 14 July, 2017 - 04:41
Brexit has demonstrated the unsuitability of our governing system in matters of strategy, organisation, competency and tactics, let alone negotiations. The simple fact is that this is a major Strategic Leadership issue. All negotiations must be built on clarity of purpose and objective-setting. However in this case, alas, that purpose can only be created by data miners at the coalface of details. Ministers don't do details, nor do their political advisers usually. So these details must be uncovered by the Civil Service working alone. There cannot be any ministerial direction at this stage. But the crucial problem is that negotiating possibilities and purposes must be created at the same time as the details are uncovered, patterned and strategised. This mass of work can only be done by coalface civil servants, not ministers. It is the relevant involved ministers' later jobs to amass their separate departmental details, requirements and negotiating purposes into a coherent overall negotiating strategy; but they in turn are not much good at that either. Ironically few ministers can do strategy formation, which is quite different from policy formation and manifesto commitments Nevertheless, the initial departmental strategies - which can only be based on relevant data/laws/agreements/etc. discovery - can only be formed by civil servants; and they do not work like that. This is the near unsolvable problem the government faces. It is likely to create continued short-term havoc and cause major cost and delay to UK trade. If they cannot sort this out (and I do not think they have the strategy-forming skills to do so) then we should seriously consider our position and what to do about it. This might be a role for our major multinationals to get involved with?

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