Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and senior Brexit campaigner, has said civil servants need to do some “soul-searching” and accept that the UK is leaving the European Union.
Speaking to Civil Service World, Jenkin urged civil servants to recognise that Brexit was now the political mainstream.
He paraphrased former Cabinet minister David Owen, who told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week that Brexit was now the centre ground of politics, but was still being resisted by an elite in the UK that did not understand why the European Union had been rejected by voters.
"That requires some soul-searching among officials about what is now orthodoxy,” Jenkin said. “That is very difficult and I don’t blame anyone for finding that difficult. [But] the more this question of what is now orthodoxy is openly discussed and explored and understood, the easier it will be to have the internal discussions that we need to arrive at the right solutions.”
His comments came after he wrote in the Guardian that HM Treasury was hindering Brexit as it was “unable to hear any voices except those that reinforce their preconceptions”. The finance ministry seemed “blind to the facts, preoccupied with preserving ‘access’ to the EU market seemingly at any cost”, he wrote.
Jenkin told CSW that this was not personal criticism of any civil servants, and he acknowledged that it was “very difficult for individual civil servants when there are mixed messages coming out the Cabinet”.
There was a need for ministers to provide a more coherent and collective view, he said, to allow “ministers and officials to engage each other constructively”, he added. But he said there was also an “institutional mindset in the Treasury which is very pro-remain”.
“I think they must try and listen to alternative voices, like the British exporters group are who saying they don’t mind moving to WTO, like Sir James Dyson or [Lord] Anthony Bamford of JCB.”
Jenkin, whose committee has restarted its review into civil service capability following June’s general election, said the relationship between ministers and officials was crucial in Brexit talks.
“Our inquiry is called ‘How will the civil service cope with Brexit?’ and the focus is very much on the relationship between ministers and officials. In this exercise, Brexit, it more important than ever there is openness and trust between ministers and officials so that these things can be comprehensively discussed and understood rather than things being done on assumptions and implied understandings that may not exist,” he said.
“This is a very challenging time for those working in Whitehall and there is no substitute for being able to talk about anything and challenge anything in order to be able to arrive at the best solutions.”
He called for Crawford Falconer, the second permanent secretary and chief trade negotiation adviser at the Department for International Trade to be given a greater role in the Brexit talks. The discussions, which include the UK’s future relationship with the bloc, are being led by the Department for Exiting the European Union, but Jenkin said that Falconer must be regarded as “the prime minister’s trade negotiator”.
“It would be unfortunate if he was not included in the discussions about the long-term relationship with the European Union when the implications of any agreement will be felt in our trade relationships with non-EU countries ever after,” Jenkin said.
“The US trade negotiator has a remit right across government and across all trade negotiations, and Crawford Falconer’s remit should be the same.”