Jill Rutter: Boris Johnson might insist that Brexit is done, but there’s much left in the civil service’s EU exit in-tray

The UK’s formal exit from the European Union has seen the government try to move the country’s focus from Brexit. But civil servants will have no such luxury

Photo: PA

By Jill Rutter

14 Feb 2020

The prime minister may say Brexit is done on 31 January – but negotiating, legislating and implementing the UK’s new relationship will be a major preoccupation in 2020 and beyond. Brexit has already led to a significant rise in civil service staff numbers – that will continue. By March it is expected that Brexit will have led to the creation of an additional 27,500 civil service jobs.

Some things will change. The process of legislating for Brexit will be much less tortuous than it was in a hung Parliament – the big Brexit bills that stalled should reach the statute book with little amendment from the Commons at least. But the task of negotiating the UK’s relationship with Europe will be a major preoccupation for Whitehall. It will draw in far more government departments than were involved in negotiating the much more limited withdrawal agreement. Not only will all the departments with any responsibility for individual economic sectors have a role, but the security cooperation agreement will bring in the Ministry of Defence, the home and justice departments as well as the Foreign Office and Department for International Development. There will be a massive coordination task to ensure that interests are properly understood and weighed against each other, and that decisions made in one negotiation take account of implications for other deals running in parallel or to follow.


That coordination effort will extend well beyond Whitehall. While the first phase of negotiations were characterised (and hampered by secrecy and indecision) especially under Theresa May, success in the second phase will depend on both involving detailed expertise from the government’s own delivery arms, ensuring proper input from affected sectors and meeting the political challenge of keeping the devolved governments as far on board as possible. 

These are not the only negotiations Whitehall will have to handle. So far continuity trade deals have been agreed with 20 countries or trade blocs – but some really big deals remain outstanding: with Canada, Japan and Turkey. The Conservative manifesto also committed to landing some big new deals in the next three years – with countries like the US and Australia.  Since the referendum there has been a programme to develop trade capacity within Whitehall – an unneeded capability while we were EU members, but that capacity has yet to be properly tested and is likely to be stretched to breaking point in the coming years.

The type of new relationship that the government is aiming for means that the UK will have to put in place many of the new systems and processes it was getting ready for no deal. Outside the single market and customs union, the UK will need to take over responsibility from EU agencies and there will have to be at least some border checks and paperwork. Civil servants assured select committees last year that the government was ready for Brexit – and that the big gap was on business readiness. But none of the new systems have yet had to be tested. Another year to prepare should mean that there are fewer glitches and there is more time to recruit and train the people that are needed.

It is still possible that some of these changes will prove nugatory. It may be that the final deal is closer to the EU than appears likely now. The planning uncertainty that bedevilled preparations under Theresa May has been reduced but not eliminated. But the civil service finally has a government committed to a hard deadline and it will need to focus efforts to ensure the country is as ready as possible for that.     

In other areas the UK can decide its own timetable – but ministers will be keen to move fast and that will impose burdens and risks. The looming headache is the deadline for the settled status scheme in 2021 and the introduction of the new migration regime to follow on the ending of free movement – where crucial details have yet to be worked out.  There are big risks in both: how to avoid a “Windrush 2” for EU citizens who miss the deadline and how to get a new migration scheme up and running on a fraction of the normal timetable business is given to adapt to much less significant changes. 

The Home Office at least has kept the Home Secretary. But other key Brexit departments face a change of personnel at the top: Alok Sharma at BEIS, Rishi Sunak at the Treasury, Brandon Lewis taking over at a critical time as Northern Ireland Secretary and George Eustice moving up at Defra. 

Whitehall will be breathing a sigh of relief that a year will not be wasted on a big departmental reorganisation. The only significant change of course is the well trailed disbandment of the Department for Exiting the EU.

 DExEU was set up in haste and has been repurposed and dismantled over time – underlining again the need to think through machinery of government changes. It makes sense to put coordinating the future relationship into the centre of government. But there is a real risk that unless the change is well managed a lot of knowledge built up over the last three years will be lost and the reshuffle has failed to clarify whether there is a new ministerial counterpart to Michel Barnier in the Brexit negotiations.

The prime minister also needs to decide who gets to make the difficult trade-offs the negotiations will require.  He involved very few ministers in his EU strategy XS committee.  The range of subjects under discussion means he will need expanded representation, while finding a way to retain the decisiveness that marked a break from the stasis under his predecessor.

Brexit has already put relations between ministers and civil servants under strain.  Many civil servants have found the decisiveness and unity of the Johnson cabinet a welcome relief after three years of division. But they know that the new government has what it believes to be civil service’s shortcomings in its sights – and they will have seen the moves to take control over advisers and bring the Treasury to heel. But as with reorganisation, the real risk is adding a big reform agenda as another item onto the already massive 2020 to do list. The government now needs a plan, not for the next five months but the next five years or, as it switches from campaigning to governing, it risks wasting the opportunity it has created for itself.

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