Former DExEU minister tells successors to be ‘grateful’ for the civil service
David Jones said there was a “huge improvement across the board in the preparedness of departments” in the first year following the creation of DExEU
Former Brexit minister David Jones has said ministers working on the UK's departure from the European Union should be grateful for the professionalism of the civil service in tackling one of the biggest policy issues since the second world war.
Jones, who supported Brexit, was minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union from its formation in July 2016 to June 2017 and told the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series of interviews that he would advise a new minister who starts working on Brexit to “regard the civil service as an immense resource”.
Jones’s comments came before a successor as DExEU minister Steve Baker was forced to apologise for appearing to accuse civil servants of deliberately developing analysis to favour a continued close relationship with the EU.
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Baker last week said in the House of Commons that backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg was “essentially correct” in recalling a conversation between Baker and Grant that the Treasury had “deliberately developed” a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad for the UK economy.
However, Grant subsequently disputed this version of events and claimed he had only told Baker that he was aware of research carried out by the Treasury that showed that the economic benefits of free trade agreements with countries outside the EU were significantly less than the costs of leaving the customs union.
Following Grant’s comments, and the publication of the tape of the event, Baker apologised to Grant and corrected his comments to MPs, adding that he had "the highest regard for our hard working civil servants".
Asked for his advice to new ministers working on Brexit, Jones told the IfG to be “extremely grateful that you’ve got the best civil service in the world working for you”.
He added: “You’ve got officials who, provided they get clear guidance, will do precisely what you want them to do, and they will give you the best advice possible while you make up your mind precisely what that is. So just regard the civil service as an immense resource. Take advantage of them. They are extremely willing and extremely able, and you’re very lucky to have them.”
Jones also said that it was a “justifiable criticism” that little preparatory work been done for Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, but he added he was “quite impressed with the speed with which they had begun the process of scoping out the issues that we needed to address”.
DExEU was created to lead the UK's exit in July 2016 when Theresa May became prime minister, which Jones said had had led to “a huge improvement across the board in the preparedness of departments”.
While at the outset some had been “really very unprepared” without coherent plans in place to deal with the EU exit, officials in DExEU, were “very good at talking to people in very forthright terms” in order to get work done.
The improvement in preparedness was not down to additional money, he said, but rather putting together a team in DExEU whose role was to get other departments to boost their preparedness.
“That was done very soon after we were appointed, and these guys are extremely effective at talking to other officials in a language they understand. Which is not necessarily impolite, but, as I said, it’s very forthright,” he added.
“That just underlines the point I made at the start of this conversation: we’re so lucky to have the civil service, because they know how to do things, and they are extremely effective when they need to be, provided they get the right political direction.
“What they need is political direction and, provided they get that, they will do a wonderful job. They are doing a wonderful job now."
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