Oliver Letwin: Brexit talks a “supreme task of complicated analysis” for the civil service
Exclusive: David Cameron’s former policy guru tells CSW that Brexit negotiations will be like a “multi-dimensional game of chess” and officials must co-ordinate analysis work to make sure British politicians have upper hand
Oliver Letwin, the former minister for government policy who led the civil service Brexit team in the weeks immediately after the referendum, has said the main way officials can help smooth the UK’s exit from the EU is to provide “incredibly good" and "continuously updated analysis" of the position of other member states.
Speaking to CSW, Letwin – who kept a low public profile during his time in government but was viewed in Whitehall as one of the Cameron administration's key thinkers – stressed that politicians and diplomats would ultimately decide the course of Brexit.
But he said the quality of civil service thinking would be a vital factor in negotiations.
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“This is a sort of multi-dimensional game of chess and if you know more, understand more, than the people you're negotiating with, it doesn't guarantee you’ll succeed – but you stand a better chance," he said.
“Where the civil service can make a huge difference is in creating an incredibly good, flexible, fast, responsive, clear-minded and continuously updated analysis of the ambitions of all the participants that we're dealing.”
Letwin said keeping a close eye on the position of other member states would be essential if Britain is to exploit what he sees as a key advantage in the Brexit takes – namely, that it is one country, as opposed to 27 countries and three EU institutions with differing priorities.
“Their problem is they are a kind of many-headed dinosaur, it's very difficult for the brain at one end to speak to the other,” Letwin said.
“But of course to have that advantage of being able to know when talking to x what y, z, p, and q think better than x does, we need to be first of all very, very good at doing these analyses and, secondly, have it tied together completely.”
The former Cabinet Office minister warned that Britain could lose its advantage in talks if departments failed to share knowledge with each other and with central co-ordinating teams.
And he said civil servants would try and identify areas that were important to other European member states but on which Britain was prepared to give ground.
“The art of negotiation is to trade things you don't really care about for things you do care about,” Letwin says, “which are things they don't care about.”
“If you can't find things you care about that they don't care about and vice versa you probably won't get to an agreement.
“So what’s now required is a supreme task of complicated analysis that involves every sinew of diplomatic intelligence, but also an understanding of the local politics and needs and how those interact with the structures of the EU system.”
Letwin also told CSW that “waking up to discover that we were leaving the European Union” was the worst moment of his political career.
The best, he said, was “sitting round the cabinet table for the first time in 2010, which was very far from inevitable. I'd certainly invested a lot of emotional energy in that process [of setting up coalition]”.
CSW's full interview with Letwin will be published next month.
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