Dave Penman: Government should reveal the details of a no-deal Brexit

In these unprecedented circumstances, we should ditch the convention of confidentiality around civil servants’ advice to ministers – for the good of us all, says the FDA general secretary

The M20 motorway in Kent as one side is closed for Operation Brock, the scheme to ease congestion in a no-deal Brexit. Photo: PA

By Dave Penman

04 Jun 2019

There’s an old saying that many claim is of Chinese origin, often thought to be a curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It would appear to have been a misrepresentation, started by Joseph Chamberlain, Neville’s dad, and it’s sometimes known as Chamberlain’s curse. Anyroad, I think we can all agree we are well and truly cursed with “interesting times”.

As Brexit sees off a second prime minister before any agreement has even been reached, it appears almost anything is possible, probable and unlikely all at the same time. So our quirky unwritten constitution now throws up an election to replace a Tory leader who took over as PM without being elected by, you know, the electorate, who then lost an election but stayed as PM and will now be replaced by another Tory leader who will become PM without being elected by, you know, the electorate.

It’s a sign of the times that this is not the most bizarre scenario we’re currently facing – it’s not even in the top 10.


Aspiring PMs are now lining up, pitching their strategy for delivering Brexit to an unrepresentative group of party members. I have some sympathy for the increasingly popular view of “Just Get On With It”. Like almost every other sane person, I’m sick to the back teeth of Brexit. JGOWI is, in these circumstances, completely understandable.

I’ve had a similar response to picking furniture for the new FDA head office. After looking at endless samples and swatches, I’m sick of it. Every time I see a colour sample that has an uncanny resemblance to every other grey on offer but is called Cold Winter’s Mist instead, JGOWI is exactly how I feel. And really, that’s just fine when it comes to picking the colour of a meeting room table, but when the consequences could be economic disaster and the blighting of generations to come, a little more care is needed.

A number of leadership contenders are now happily promising that we’ll leave the EU by the 31 October by hook or by crook. It makes them sound decisive: they’ll deliver Brexit because everyone is sick of it and wants to move on. It’s no longer no-deal Brexit, because that sounds negative, it’s now WTO Brexit. Most of these contenders have been fully briefed on the consequences of no deal and are choosing to ignore the facts because they don’t play well with this particular electorate. Who knows, some might actually believe in this approach, but it looks a lot more like WTF Brexit, if you ask me.

There’s a well-established principle that civil service advice to ministers is confidential. It’s exempt from Freedom of Information and allows the civil service to provide its advice and let ministers decide without the full glare of public scrutiny. It means that whether a minister accepts that advice or not, the civil service gets on with delivering the will of the elected government. It’s a bit like cabinet government, where once a decision is made, everyone is expected to get behind it. Although not this cabinet, of course, which has had more leaks than Thames Water.

We are, however, in the middle of “interesting times”. After the resignation of two prime ministers and nearly 40 ministers, a general election, an EU parliamentary election where the winners may never take their seats and billions of pounds spent on preparing for not just no deal, but any number of other options, it’s clear the country and parliament are still deadlocked.

In these circumstances and these circumstances alone, I believe it’s time to put aside the convention of confidentiality. It’s time for a bit more Project Fact, as Sir Mark Sedwill described it. It’s time for the full analysis and advice to individual ministers to be published.

Although some of this is already in the public domain, much has been held back, as the strategy from the PM appeared to be that if you’re courting the ERG, it’s best not to annoy them with factual analysis from the civil service they distrust so much.

If it’s in the public domain, potential prime ministers and their cheerleaders can challenge, criticise and debate it to their hearts’ content, but what they won’t be able to do is hide from it. We’ll all know what they’ve been told and how this stacks up with what they decide to do and what ultimately happens.

Maybe the civil service will have got it wrong. Maybe a WTF Brexit will deliver the sunny uplands its supporters have promised. The only thing I can be sure of, given the unprecedented mess we’re currently in, is that it can’t do any harm to have a better-informed electorate and more accountable political leadership. Who knows, it might even do some good.

Read the most recent articles written by Dave Penman - We need a constitutional reset but a pick 'n' mix of ideas is not the answer

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