Joe Owen: The hardest part of Brexit is still to come

Written by Joe Owen on 11 June 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

The scale, constraints and pressure of Brexit have very few comparators – and the clock is ticking. Is it any wonder that the complexity of trying to deliver it is keeping civil servants up at night?

Photo: PA

“The biggest problem with Britain today is its politics.” It’s easy to imagine that being said in pubs or cafes around the country at various points over the last few months; it was more of a surprise when it came from the mouth of the prime minister just days before she announced her resignation.

She could have easily followed that up by saying that the biggest problem with politics in Britain today is Brexit. Few could disagree with that. And the problem seems only to be getting bigger and more divisive.

But Brexit is much more than just a political problem, it’s a practical one too. Even if a majority of MPs in Westminster start to agree with each other (as challenging as that has proved), it still needs to be negotiated, implemented and legislated – all at the same time. And that’s the job that’s been keeping civil servants awake at night.


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The sleepless nights are far from over. The success of the Brexit party – and its effect on the Conservative leadership contest – means no deal cannot be ruled out.

Preparing for a possible no deal is undoubtedly the biggest practical challenge for the civil service. It’s the most extreme change in the shortest amount of time. It seems almost impossible to claim the UK was ready for no deal in March and – it’s probably safe to bet – the same will be true October. Of course, any judgement rests on what is meant by “readiness”. If it is “did the civil service implement the systems and processes they could, given constraints”, then you can make a good case.

But that’s unlikely to be how many in the country define readiness. Is there going to be disruption? Is business ready? Will there be problems in Northern Ireland? Giving a prime minister the answers they want to hear on those questions will prove much, much harder – in some cases impossible, given the circumstances. More time might be helpful, but the October deadline also brings new challenges: gearing the Whitehall machine – and crucially business – back up to full speed could be harder a second time round.

Brexit is like organising the Olympics, but without knowing the year, the location, or which sports or countries are entering

And the fog of uncertainty is unlikely to clear in the near future

No deal is not the only game in town, though. Whitehall needs to be gearing up for a much bigger, more complex set of negotiations with Europe and it needs to be working on the longer-term changes that could be needed after any transition – in everything from immigration to agriculture.

But can anyone offer a reliable answer about if or when those two things might happen? Or what the government of the day’s priorities will be for them? Brexit is like organising the Olympics, but without knowing the year, the location, or which sports or countries are entering. And a much, much harder ask.

Completing the necessary work for the next phase in a 21-month transition was always an unrealistic stretch. In the 14 months now available, due to the extended Article 50 period, it’s surely an impossibility. But a new prime minister is unlikely to want to accept – yet – that a transition will need to be extended beyond 2020. That refusal has real implications for project plans and risk registers all over Whitehall. Likewise, a new PM could turn plans and structures for the next phase on their head or decide there will be no next phase – at least for now.

There should be some clarity in the coming months. But it seems like that gets said every few months and the Brexit fog only thickens.

Brexit has already pushed the civil service to extremes

Working through a degree of political uncertainty and overcoming practical challenges is a big part of what the civil service does. But the scale, constraints and pressure of Brexit have very few – if any – comparators. A minister has resigned, on average, once a month over the last three years. Over 10,000 pages of legislation have been created using Brexit-related statutory instruments. High profile new systems are up and running within three years of the referendum. A withdrawal agreement was struck after intense talks.

The shape and size of Whitehall has changed, with 16,000 civil servants working on Brexit at its peak. If every official working on Brexit was plonked in a single Whitehall department, it would be the sixth largest – bigger than the Treasury, Foreign Office, Defra and Cabinet Office combined. And it would no doubt be one very exhausted department.

Throughout this, the civil service has had to silently sustain criticism. Many of its prominent critics could quickly find themselves in ministerial office. The challenge for Whitehall then is having honest conversations about what is and is not possible, while also trying to (re)build positive relationships.

When all is said and done, no-one is claiming that Brexit will have been a perfect process. The civil service will have to learn some very hard lessons. But anyone who argues the civil service has been trying to stop Brexit has somehow overlooked the extraordinary amount that’s been done. No-one has done more to try to deliver it.

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Joe Owen
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Joe Owen is programme director at the Institute for Government and leads its EU Exit work

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