Experts clash over civil service’s ability to deliver on Brexit decision

Whitehall commentators and insiders at odds over expertise and timescales for “conscious uncoupling” with Europe

In two weeks’ time, the nation will have made its decision on whether the UK should stay within the European Union. But exclusive insight given to Civil Service World calls into question the government’s capacity to deliver on a vote to leave.

In a detailed exploration of the mechanics of delivering on a Brexit vote, due to be published next week, insiders predict a leadership vacuum in the event of a decision to leave the EU, and a lack of the kind of core skills needed to negotiate a robust departure deal.

But Brexit proponents – among them Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair Bernard Jenkin – argue a managed exit from the UK would be much more straightforward. 

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The expected departure route for nations seeking to leave the EU is via Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates a two-year deadline to agree an exit programme. However, some suggest a decision to invoke the clause may not be taken for weeks following the referendum, as would be the case for other key strategic decisions on how to process the referendum outcome.

One former senior official told CSW he was certain the prime minister David Cameron “would leave the next day”, in the event of a vote for Brexit on June 23.

Meanwhile Dan Corry, former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, also predicted “chaos at the centre of government” in the wake of a Brexit vote, adding that David Cameron would be “severely weakened” even if he chose to stay on.

Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, pointed out that the UK had not conducted a unilateral trade negotiation since joining the European Economic Community in 1973, and would face an immediate skills shortage.

“It will take a substantial team and we have lost our capacity in this area,” he said. “We will have to recruit people with expertise and it is going to be potentially expensive in the short term.”

Dr Nick Wright, teaching fellow in EU politics at University College London, said the idea that all the negotiations required for a Brexit could be completed within two years was “very optimistic”.

But arch-Eurosceptic Jenkin was sanguine, arguing that the UK would have control over its own destiny in the wake of a vote to leave and would not be bound by EU timescales.

“There is no mad rush to get a whole lot of stuff done by a certain deadline,” he said. “I think it is extremely unlikely we will avail ourselves of Article 50.

“We don’t need to do it if we choose not to or leave unilaterally.”

He added: “It is not necessary to have an audit of every single piece of European legislation and how it affects the UK. The government had the Balance of Competencies review in 2012. It already knows exactly where we are affected by EU legislation.”

UCL’s Wright said the government wouldn't have to invoke Article 50 until it was ready to do so, and pointed out that the deadline could be extended, with the agreement of the European Council of Ministers.

However one former senior civil servant told CSW he did not believe the UK could expect much flexibility from an EU that was keen to prevent the departures of other states.

He said: “My experience of the EU is that the politics always trumps the economics. The mindset would be that we need to avoid a domino effect at all costs. The motivation would be to make it as difficult as possible for the UK. So they’d not only be incredibly complex negotiations, but they’d be in a hostile environment.”

The full Civil Service World feature about the implications of a Brexit vote for the civil service will go live on Monday.



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