Brexit is about ‘damage limitation’ for civil service, says Lord Kerslake

Former civil service head also brands no Brexit deal a ‘complete disaster’ for Britain


By Tamsin Rutter

06 Sep 2017

Former civil service head Lord Kerslake has said there is “no upside” to Brexit, and that it would be an “utter and complete disaster” for Britain if it fails to strike a deal with the EU before March 2019.

Speaking on Newsnight about whether Whitehall can deliver on Brexit, Bob Kerslake said: “The civil service prides itself in doing the job that it’s asked to do by the government of the day.

“The challenge here, and I’ll be very direct about this – from my perspective there is no upside. This is about damage limitation. And we’re working in a situation where policy has not been properly settled.”


Commenting on the leak of the Home Office document on immigration policy in post-Brexit Britain, which envisioned much stricter controls than current freedom of movement arrangements, he added that civil servants will struggle to develop coherent policies with the current confusion around strategy.

“An election that was intended to settle the way we left the European Union, did nothing of the sort,” he said. 

“So we still have a very live debate about how the transition period will work and in that situation civil servants will struggle to get coherent policies if the politicians haven’t sorted out their clear priorities.”

Kerslake, who stepped down as head of the civil service in 2014, also dismissed the suggestion previously made by prime minister Theresa May that "no deal is better than a bad deal" for EU exit terms.

He said: “I don’t know what the civil service view, is but I know what my view is – it would be an utter and complete disaster for this country.

“We need to be very, very frank about this: there isn’t a ‘no deal’ option that would be good for this country.”

Kerslake, a member of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, which today published a report arguing that the British economic model needs fundamental reform, said the government’s economic policies are not delivering a fair society.

Defending the practices of the civil service during his time in government, he said: “I don’t think we necessarily saw individual policies as wrong, but what you need to look at is a longer period of what has happened in the UK over many, many years.”

The IPPR report suggests some broad areas of reform, including changes to the role and function of the Treasury, ahead of a final report due next year that will make more specific policy recommendations.

Kerslake led a review on the Treasury earlier this year for the Labour Party, which called for the department to adopt a more sharply defined role to shake the perception among the rest of Whitehall that it is "arrogant, overbearing and negative". 

He has also previously called for an independent review on Whitehall’s capacity to manage Brexit, saying that the civil service has huge skills but, at its smallest size since the second world war, lacks sufficient numbers.

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