Former Brexit secretary David Davis has lambasted officials who presided over the UK’s departure deal from the European Union for doing a “really crap job” in a detailed for-the-record interview covering his experiences as a government minister.
Davis, who resigned as secretary of state in the Department for Exiting the European Union in the summer of 2018, also described government lawyers as “useless” and lamented general declining standards among civil servants between the 1990s and the 2010s.
Talking to the Institute for Government for its Ministers Reflect series, Davis additionally claimed that permanent secretaries at other departments discouraged their staff from offering their skills to DExEU, which was created in the summer of 2016 but wound up when the UK formally left the EU in early 2020.
Davis told the IfG that when Theresa May asked him to be Brexit secretary when she became prime minister in July 2016, a name for the department he would head had yet to be finalised. But options included the Department for Leaving the European Union as well as the one eventually settled upon.
“In my normal frivolous mode, I said, ‘well, if we call it the Department for Exiting the European Union then we can call it Department X’,” Davis said. “She didn’t crack a smile.”
However Davis was not in frivolous mode for his evaluation of the negotiating prowess of his officials, initially led by DExEU perm sec Olly Robbins, who also served as May’s Brexit “sherpa”.
“Whitehall did a really crap job of negotiation. I mean, really crap,” Davis said. “I think it’s partly because they sympathised with the European view and assumed that was reciprocated. It wasn’t.
“You know, if you feel the person on the other side of the table is a nice person, and you really understand their point of view, there is a tendency to think that they’ll be friendly to you – which is naïve on a grand scale and also doesn’t take into account the psychology, if you’ve got a negotiation where going in you’ve got an antagonism on the other side… and we plainly did, with the French at least.”
Davis said May and Robbins had been naïve about the positions and motivations of the EU side.
“Understandable, you know. In ordinary human discourse it’s probably right,” Davis said of the approach the UK side took to negotiations. “But in affairs of state it’s not.”
Setting up DExEU was ‘chaos’
Davis said that the experience of setting up DExEU in 2016 had been “terrible” and a period of “chaos” for a variety of reasons.
“Whitehall generically did not like the new department,” he said. “I found out later – I didn’t know at the time – but found out over the course of the next year or so, that a significant number of talented young civil servants wanted to come and work in the department but were told by their permanent secretaries, ‘don’t, I’ll give you a better job here’. That happened quite a lot.”
He also criticised the quality of advice provided by government lawyers in relation to campaigning businesswoman Gina Miller’s successful legal challenge to the government’s attempts to start the formal Brexit process without parliamentary backing.
“The truth was Gina Miller had the right of the argument and I thought she would win it,” Davis said. “Whitehall lawyers said she wouldn’t. Whitehall lawyers are generally useless. Sometimes they just give the advice they think they’re expected to give.”
However he conceded: “I can’t evidence that. That’s one of those things I’d fail myself on – no data – but that’s my impression.”
Davis served as a Foreign Office minister in the 1990s in the final three years of John Major’s government. During that time, government negotiations with the EU were among his responsibilities.
In his IfG interview, Davis said the FO’s Europe department had become a “very depleted operation” by 2016, in comparison with his earlier time in government.
“In the Foreign Office, the reason the Europe department declined is that much of the work was being done in Brussels due to the transfer of powers, so talent was more dispersed,” he said.
Davis said he believed the calibre of officials in other parts of Whitehall had declined markedly over the same period.
“There were some very, very good people later on but the average standard had dropped dramatically,” he said.
“In the Treasury, in the Foreign Office, in all the great departments of state, the standard of the people you had working for you was very variable.
“I had people who were just as good as they would’ve been 20 years ago and people who were nothing like as good.”
Davis blamed the 1980s “Big Bang” deregulation of the financial markets, effected while Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, for harming the quality of officials in the Treasury.
“A young man can go and earn £1m a year in the City, or he can work for twice as many hours and earn next to nothing in the Treasury,” Davis said.
How to win the ‘red box’ game
Towards the end of his IfG interview, Davis was asked for advice he would give to new ministers.
The former minister focused on ways to manage red-box papers presented for sign-off – and fox civil servants in the process.
“The first day you get into office, call your predecessor and read them the contents of the first folder you’re given to clear that night,” he said. “Officials will bring you all the things that your predecessor turned down.
“I used to do this when I moved the other way around. I used to call the person who succeeded me and say, ‘Just read me your box’. I’d say ‘yes, no, no, no’ and so on.
“It stops Whitehall pulling a fast one, but it also teaches Whitehall a lesson when the new minister says, ‘no, you can’t do that’.”
Davis also advised ministers not to take their red box home with them, but to demand it be delivered to their ministerial office by 5pm every day and then make a point of completing it at work.
“Your first night you’ll be there for four hours. But by the time you’ve done it a few times, you’ll be there for two hours,” he said.
“In those days at least, if you were still in the building, then the person who wrote the papers had to be there too.
“There’s a nice discipline on officials if, in order to give you a policy paper, they’ve got to sit in the office until seven o’clock at night. It will stop them giving you frivolous papers.”