Johnson urged to abolish DExEU on 1 February

Brexit department remains an awkward fit in Whitehall, IfG says

Photo: PA

By Richard Johnstone

13 Dec 2019

The Institute for Government has urged Boris Johnson to scrap the Department for Exiting the European Union after completing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

In a blog post yesterday, before Johnson won a 78-seat majority in the election, IfG Brexit programme director Joe Owen said the fate of the Brexit ministry was the biggest machinery of government question facing the returning prime minister.

During the election campaign, it was reported that the prime minister plans to merge DExEU and DIT to form a “super-department”, headed by Michael Gove.


Owen highlighted that Brexit responsibilities had shifted frequently between DExEU and the Cabinet Office since its formation by then-prime minister Theresa May in 2016, and said it would be better for the the two departments to merge.

“May gradually moved responsibility for the UK’s Brexit policy away from DExEU and closer to her own control, but problems arising from the department’s awkwardness were not limited to her premiership,” says Owen. “Under Johnson, the role of Brexit secretary became increasingly blurred, with operational readiness (no-deal planning in particular) handed to Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office, and David Frost, Johnson’s Europe adviser, taking over responsibility for negotiations. The problems weren’t played out in public, but this relationship was far from frictionless.”

Its relationship with the Cabinet Office had caused problems in the negotiations, although it did retain some important functions, he added.

“The UK needed teams to coordinate negotiations centrally, keep oversight of practical preparations, track legislation and take ownership of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) and the EU Withdrawal Act,” said Owen.

“At the time, however, the department felt more like a player with its own interests rather than one which performed a traditional coordinating function. And the strained political climate created by Brexit only made its intended role harder.”

The IfG said DExEU's functions should be allocated to the Cabinet Office because the prime minister, rather than any departmental secretary of state, will be the ultimate decision maker in talks with the EU on the future trading relationship. “This points towards negotiations being run from the Cabinet Office – with a dedicated unit responsible for providing support to UK negotiators and decision making in Whitehall,” Owen said.

This Cabinet Office unit would work closely with DIT, he said. However, merging DExEU and DIT into a single department with a secretary of state may repeat the mistakes of the last three years by establishing a rival Brexit powerbase to No.10.

The switch should come after the UK’s now presumptive Brexit date of 31 January, Owen said.

“Bringing an end to DExEU would demonstrate that the prime minister has carefully reflected on the last three years and is determined to avoid the mistakes that have been a feature of the Brexit process to date,” he added.

“The end of DExEU does not mean the end of Brexit, no matter how much the prime minister would like it to be 'done'. Nor does it indicate a slowdown in Brexit-related work. If anything, the task will become more complicated and the numbers of civil servants working on Brexit will continue to rise rapidly.”

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