Lord Gus O'Donnell
Former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has said he expects a public inquiry to take place into the UK's decision to leave the European Union – and for constitutional issues that have arisen since to be properly probed.
O’Donnell, who was head of the civil service under prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, also said that current cab sec Sir Mark Sedwill was facing “mission impossible” compared with the challenges on his watch.
In an interview for BBC Rado 4’s Westminster Hour politics programme, O’Donnell said the fallout from Cameron’s decision to offer – and then call – a referendum on EU membership was such a “big issue” that he expected an inquiry to take place. Calls for such an inquiry have already come from former civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake and senior Labour Party figures.
O’Donnell also said the recent months of parliamentary wrangling over prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement had exposed constitutional issues that needed to be addressed.
“I think we have seen a change in the balance between parliament and the executive,” he said. “There are many people [who] will think with our with our system, with first past the post, that if you’ve got a clear majority you can pretty much do what you like and that the checks and balances that are provided by parliament are relatively limited.
“I think that there’s something to be said for rebalancing that somewhat. I think there’s also a question that we need to look at over the role of the speaker."
He said the speaker reported to parliament but questioned: “Does parliament have the ability to keep the speaker in check?”
O’Donnell did not criticise speaker John Bercow, but observed that in a constitutional system is governed by precedent, the speaker had “changed a lot of those precedents”.
The former cabinet secretary appeared to suggest that looking at the relationship between parliament, the executive and the speaker was a more pressing issue than the anticipated inquiry into Brexit.
“When the dust has settled from all of this, we need to sort out things like the relationship between parliament and the executive and the role of the speaker, to allow the executive branch to have a bit more certainty about what the rules are, and not to be surprised by the speaker saying: ‘Actually, this time I’m going to do it differently,’” he said. “That seems to me like not good government.”
O’Donnell said governments generally only agreed to parliamentary demands for public inquiries after the leaders responsible for the key decisions to be probed had moved on.
He said a public inquiry should probe how referendum questions should be phrased in future, and some of the key claims from the 2016 vote.
“I’m certain they’ll go through the campaign picking up those areas where there were things that were highly misleading,” he said.
“We all know the £350m on the bus, and we all know that [the] emergency budget saying that there would be a big recession if there were a vote one way or another was also misleading.
“There are lots of lessons there, and then there are the lessons in terms of how you enter these negotiations? Article 50 was written by the EU to ensure that leaving is a pretty unattractive option, so we should have realised that and we should have done a lot more work pre the triggering process.”
Elsewhere in the interview, O’Donnell said he believed that the “true voice” of Northern Ireland was not being heard because of the power vacuum at Stormont.
He said that while the Democratic Unionist Party had a “legitimate role” as partners in Theresa May’s minority government, they were not the only important group in Northern Ireland.
“It’s a power-sharing government and we are only hearing from one side,” he said.
Asked how the challenges faced by the current cabinet secretary compared to those he had dealt with, O’Donnell said Sedwill’s were much bigger.
“I think he’s got mission impossible at the minute,” O’Donnell said.
“All the things that I thought were difficult in my day – like coalitions and deficits, getting them down and the rest of it – are pretty straightforward compared to the sorts of issues that Mark Sedwill is facing.”