In a world of uncertainty, the one fixed point in the planning horizon is 11.00 pm BST on 29 March 2019. After that we will no longer be an EU member state. But what comes next? There are still many unknowns. Will we leave imperceptibly with a time-limited transition, slipping out of the political institutions but with everything else still operating as before? That seems to be what the prime ninister is now proposing, following her Florence speech last month. But even if this becomes clear government policy, nothing is certain until there is agreement with the EU27.
Will we leave with a new relationship with the EU in place? That looks unlikely with so little time to agree and ratify the comprehensive/deep/special/unprecedented arrangement the government has said it is seeking.
Or will we crash out with “no deal” -– becoming the EU’s only major trading partner without some sort of trading agreement?
Fundamental questions remain over what happens, and when. That makes planning a real problem for all those in Whitehall and beyond who are not on the monthly Eurostar to go head-to-head with the commission team, but are tasked with making the practical arrangements to ensure continuity and minimise disruption.
In May, the Institute for Government reported on the state of readiness for a new migration regime. We concluded that there was no chance that the Home Office could have registered all EU citizens currently here and be ready with a replacement for free movement by March 2019. That is reflected in the government’s proposals for a two-year “grace period” to complete the task of handing out settled status documentation.
The good news on migration is that, barring the politics of appearing to continue with free movement beyond exit date, the ball is almost entirely in our court. We can decide what our future regime is and give the employers and landlords who are on the enforcement frontline time to adapt.
Our new report on implementing new border arrangements – customs and regulatory checks – makes much less reassuring reading. Unless we continue in a customs union and in the single market, and continue to conform to EU regulation on agricultural and food products, there could be instant, and very real, disruption.
Readiness depends on the new HMRC IT system – which was due to be delivered in January 2017, replacing a system that was built in 1989 – being up and working on time. This system is trying to recover after a massive scope increase mid-course led the Infrastructure and Pojects Authority to downgrade it from “green” to “amber-red” in March this year. But that is just the start. Ports need to be ready to accommodate new checks – and even if we decide on a minimalist approach, what happens there will depend on how the other side of the border, bound by EU requirements, decides to act. Operation Stack is mostly used as a result of delays in Calais, not Dover or Folkestone. There are over 30 different public bodies who need to act together to smooth the process of getting goods from one side of the border to the other. That includes big players like the UK Border Force through to small ones such as the Government Diamond Office and the Arts Council.
But it’s not just public agencies who need to be ready. Around 130,000 traders who trade only with the EU, many of them SMEs, will have to get ready to comply with customs requirements for the first time. Those who depend on just-in time supply chains will have to rethink their business models to cope with potential delays. These are the sorts of changes that usually come in with years, not months, of notice.
Customs encapsulates the Brexit challenge. We are negotiating, legislating and implementing simultaneously with a hard deadline. If there were complete certainty the timetable would be courageous. But without knowing what to plan for it becomes almost impossible. There is an unpalatable choice between preparing for an uncertain change, risking wasting money – or gambling on a transition riding to the rescue and risking the possibility that it doesn’t.
This challenge is replicated across government and the private sector, and the clock is ticking. Regulators need to know what new powers they will get and what new duties they will have. Businesses need to know under what arrangements they will be operating.
Five years ago we wrote a report on how well the government delivered a big cross-government programme with an unmovable hard deadline – the 2012 London Olympics. But there we had seven years to prepare and could draw on the expertise of those who had put on earlier games.
The task of delivering Brexit is exponentially harder. It requires ruthless prioritisation and a major coordinated cross-government effort to ensure resources are put – and stay – where they are needed. And it requires a clear single point of accountability at the centre for ensuring Brexit implementation happens.
The government has complicated its Brexit structures further by taking the negotiating lead back into the Cabinet Office, provoking some to ask whether DExEU still has a role. Surely it is time for DExEU to step up and become the Senior Responsible Owner for delivering Brexit.