Mervyn King (right) pictured with former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Photo PA
Former Bank of England governor Mervyn King has attacked the civil service as being partly to blame for the UK’s “incompetent” handling of the Brexit negotiations.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, Lord King said the UK had been left without a credible bargaining position after the government revealed that it had stockpiled food and medicines in the event of a no-deal exit.
Asked if he thought the government had been incompetent, he said that both ministers and the civil service had been responsible for bringing the country to a position where “we are now being told that we have to accept a certain course of action otherwise it would be catastrophic”.
"The group of people tasked with trying to make decisions on all of this is parliament as a whole not just the government [ministers], and the civil service,” he said.
“Now, it beggars belief that the sixth biggest economy in the world should get itself into that position.”
Lord King said the UK lacked a credible bargaining position, because it had not put measures in place to allow it to say it could and leave without a free trade deal if none were offered.
He said there was now a danger that neither Leave nor Remain supporters would feel the outcome of the negotiations was what they wanted.
The 27 EU members had, surprisingly, shown a united front in the negotiations while the UK government – representing only one country – had been unable to, he noted.
King’s criticism of the civil service came a week after the Prospect trade union found in a survey of 1,073 of its members that fewer than 5% of civil servants were satisfied with the government’s approach to Brexit negotiations.
Responding to King's comments, Prospect deputy general secretary Garry Graham said civil servants look to politicians as their political masters to provide direction and clarity of vision.
“Both of these have been notably lacking,” he said. “It was David Cameron who instructed the civil service not to make any preparation for Brexit prior to the referendum. His successor has struggled to achieve any kind of consensus within even her own party as to what Brexit should look like. In that context it is unfair to blame civil servants for a state of affairs where the clarity that they need to plan has not been forthcoming.
“The civil service has been used as a punch bag by politicians seeking to escape responsibility for the consequences of their own decisions, it is deeply unfair to lay the blame on dedicated public servants who are trying to make the best of the situation and who are unable to respond to these attacks.”
A Department for Exiting the European Union spokesperson said: “We are focused on negotiating a deal of unprecedented scope and ambition and, as the Brexit secretary has said, getting a good deal is, by far, the most likely outcome.
"We have already made significant progress. The vast majority of the withdrawal agreement has now been agreed, and we are making further progress on the outstanding separation issues.”
They said agreement had been reached on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and Britons in the EU to “carry on living as they do now” and the terms of an implementation period, to give businesses a lead time to adjust.
Brexit secretary Dominic Raab told parliament yesterday that he had had a further round of talks with EU negotiator Michel Barnier covering outstanding Withdrawal Agreement issues, internal and external security, and a future economic partnership.
Progress had been made last month on data protection and police and judicial cooperation.
Raab said that since publication of the government’s white paper on withdrawal in July more than 60 ministerial meetings and taken place across Europe,
He said: “Just as we have presented our proposals in a spirit of compromise, so too they have proved challenging in some respects for some in the EU.
“But, our friends across Europe are engaging seriously with our proposals on the substance.”