Jill Rutter: It's hard to overstate Brexit’s impact on Whitehall

Written by Jill Rutter on 5 April 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Two years since Article 50 was triggered – and longer since EU referendum campaigning hit its stride – the Brexit effect on both the civil service and parliament has been profound

For three years now, government has been preoccupied with the EU Referendum and its consequences. It has had profound effects on Whitehall and Westminster, which the Institute for Government explores in its new publication, The Brexit Effect.

The most obvious sign of change in Whitehall is in the numbers of civil servants. After six years of cuts, the plan was for the squeeze in numbers to continue up to 2020. Brexit has reversed that: not just with the creation of the two Brexit departments, the temporary Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade, but also in the most Brexit-affected departments. The change has been most stark in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – one of the hardest-cut departments from 2010 to 2016. It has seen the biggest increases since the referendum result was announced.

As an-ex Defra civil servant, it is also clear that the department's place in the Whitehall power nexus has changed. Once every 10 years, Defra finds itself run by a secretary of state who sees potential in the brief, but Michael Gove also stands out as the one secretary of state who is trying to capitalise on the policy opportunities that Brexit presents.


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Departments have been hit by unprecedented levels of ministerial resignations. Not all are due to Brexit, but Theresa May’s government has seen a total of 30 resignations – of which 16 have been since November. That is inevitably destabilising and resource-draining. DExEU has lost two secretaries of state, with only junior minister Robin Walker staying in post since July 2016.

Brexit staffing has been covered by a mix of internal moves, transfers from arm’s-length bodies and external recruits. The autumn Civil Service People Survey showed, against expectation, that morale was holding up well – though it is less clear that this is still the case. Ministers generally seem to appreciate the work the civil service has done in preparing Brexit.

But there are exceptions, and Brexit has undoubtedly led to tensions between politicians and the civil service. This started early and led to the departure of former UK permanent representation to the EU Sir Ivan Rogers, while the PM is reported to be ready to “dump” her chief Europe adviser Olly Robbins as a price for getting her deal through. One minister recently claimed that Whitehall was straining “every sinew” to stop Brexit, and there was a huge risk to future governments if Brexit ended up in mutual recrimination and mass scapegoating. Avoiding this scenario should be top of both the prime minister’s and cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill’s agenda.

Implementation of policy faces challenges. The highest risk area in the next two years is the Home Office. It has done well in developing its settled status scheme, but the task of shepherding an estimated 3.8 million EU citizens through the system is a huge challenge. Even a 99% correct decision rate would mean 38,000 potential Guardian stories.

Brexit is also reversing the quango cull. Three new bodies are in the pipeline: the Trade Remedies Authority, set up in shadow form; the Independent Monitoring Authority, which will take over monitoring UK compliance with its citizens’ rights obligations at the end of the transition period; and Michael Gove’s proposed environmental watchdog. Other arm’s-length bodies are getting more functions, staff and funds. However, with continuing uncertainty about the when and what of Brexit, those staff face the prospect of moving within days to go live, not being called into action until as late as January 2023 or, if the UK succeeds in negotiating access to EU agencies, never being called into action at all.

The impact on Westminster of Brexit is, if anything, more profound. Parties within parties. Legislature versus executive. Speaker versus government. Cross-party alliances forming.

Most serving civil servants – even the most senior – will have been able to do their jobs with remarkably little reference to parliament. There was a brief interlude in the 1990s when John Major lost his majority but as a general rule government could assume that it would get its business through parliament. Even the coalition provided strong and stable government.  

The toxic combination of the divisiveness of Brexit, the status of the referendum result and a minority government with little grip on its backbenches has meant that assumption no longer holds. This session has seen a proliferation of close divisions and delays to key pieces of Brexit legislation.  

There is more to come. The issues on the future relationship with the EU are, if anything, more difficult than withdrawal. If phase one of Brexit has taken everyone by surprise, there is no excuse not to plan for the Brexit effect in phase two.

Click here to read the full Institute for Government report, The Brexit Effect.

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Jill Rutter
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Jill Rutter is a programme director at the Institute for Government. She previously held senior roles at HM Treasury, No. 10 Downing Street and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

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