"My gut fear is that, in their heart of hearts, most of my former colleagues at senior level can’t believe the country will actually vote to leave. I don’t think, in their bones, they think it will happen. So if it does happen, it will be a real shock.”
The words of a former civil servant, speaking to me a few weeks before the vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union. How right he was.
Many civil servants will, of course, have voted for Brexit. I know one official whose years in Whitehall, and first-hand experience of the influence of Brussels on his own particular patch, have transformed him into a hardened Eurosceptic.
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But my sense, speaking to civil servants, is that a great many people are not just shocked but devastated by the outcome of the referendum. Friends in a number of departments described the funereal atmosphere at work on the day after the result, and spoke of colleagues breaking down in tears.
There was also a panicky feeling of being unready and untrained – hardly surprising given departments had effectively been banned from making any contingency plans for a “Leave” vote. “Seems like the media know more than we do,” a friend in the Home Office said by email. “I don’t think the civil service have any plans. Everything seems to have paused, or is going to ministers who aren’t doing anything!”
"How will the work of navigating Brexit feel, on a personal level? Civil servants are used to sudden policy reversals – they are a fact of life in Whitehall. But leaving the EU represents the U-turn to end all U-turns"
That last sentence points to the political lacuna that emerged after the result when David Cameron announced he would stand down as prime minister. Yet while some parts of Whitehall tread water, awaiting political direction, elsewhere the cogs are beginning to spin. A Cabinet Office Brexit unit (see p.6) has sprung up to examine options for the next prime minister, and across departments regulatory reviews and resource assessments have already begun.
How will the work of navigating Brexit feel, on a personal level? Civil servants are used to sudden policy reversals – they are a fact of life in Whitehall. But leaving the EU represents the U-turn to end all U-turns: 40 years of status quo to untangle. The emotional impact will be hard to ignore, particularly as many of the same senior officials who busted a gut on Cameron’s EU renegotiation and then tirelessly supported the official government position of keeping us in Europe will now – instead of enjoying some well-earned respite – put equal effort into getting us out.
Such a situation has the potential to be hugely demoralising. But that doesn’t for one moment mean that civil servants won’t now do their utmost to handle Brexit in a way that is as beneficial to the country as possible. Yes, many officials may have instinctively favoured remaining, but the very nature of their job is to leave bias at the door, and give their all to the task at hand.
Which is why the rhetoric of some in the Leave camp towards Whitehall is so distressing. Dominic Cummings, a former education department adviser and the campaign director for Vote Leave has, over the years, made a series of outrageous claims about the civil service. But even he has ramped it up a notch in recent months, telling the Treasury Committee that Foreign Office officials couldn’t negotiate their way “out of a paper bag” and accusing senior civil servants of “making threats” to keep Britain in the EU.
This language has continued since the vote. UKIP’s Douglas Carswell has sought assurance from David Cameron in the Commons that “some of the architects of the Leave campaign [and] not just the Europhile mandarins” would be involved in the work of the Brexit unit. The prime minister angrily leapt to civil servants’ defence, saying: “They are impartial, they are hard-working, they are the best of British.” Nice words – but Cameron is now yesterday’s man.
A few days before CSW went to press, Bernard Jenkin, the Eurosceptic chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, described being in a meeting of key Leavers where “somebody...was saying [of officials], ‘They’re all incompetent, they’re all morons, they can’t think in front of their noses and they all ought to be got rid of and replaced’”.
Alarmingly, Jenkin implied the Northcote-Trevelyan system of a permanent, objective, politically impartial civil service was now under threat. “There is this agenda and it’s a view held, even by some who are ministers, that we should have a much more American system,” he said.
Ministerial attitudes strongly influence relationships at the top of government, and it is currently impossible to know how the political situation will pan out (at the time of writing five minutes felt like a long time in politics). Despite the pull of professional pride and public service, some at the top of the civil service may well feel they just don’t have the heart to stick around – particularly if those who have attacked their professionalism rise to prominence when Cameron leaves office. Who could blame them?
But as Jenkin himself has said, Whitehall is able to “turn on a sixpence”. And despite the shock, and even the tears, civil servants will implement one of the biggest policy decisions in living memory with their customary skill, energy and integrity – and in so doing demonstrate why the Northcote-Trevelyan system is needed now more than ever.