Kerslake and O’Donnell call for Article 50 extension

Former head of the home civil service and ex-cabinet secretary say nation is simply not ready for 29 March Brexit

Lords Kerslake and O'Donnell in 2016 Credit: Parliament TV

By Jim.Dunton

11 Feb 2019

Former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake and the former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell have warned that the UK should postpone its scheduled 29 March departure from the European Union because the government is simply not ready.

In separate calls, the crossbench peers said the lack of political clarity in Westminster on what the UK wanted from its future relationship with the European Union – and what the EU might agree to – made sticking to the Article 50 date highly inadvisable.

Ahead of a report launch by the pro-Remain Peoples’ Vote organisation, Kerslake said the withdrawl agreement that prime minister Theresa May was still hoping to get through parliament offered no certainty on the future relationship between the UK and the EU and would be counterproductive.


He said that leaving on the terms set out would result in a further decade of “low-intensity political civil war”, rather than the end to the political infighting sought by then-prime minister David Cameron when he outlined plans for a referendum in 2013.

“There are three Brexit fallacies being perpetrated at the moment by the government,” said Kerslake, who was civil service head from 2011 to 2014. 

“Firstly, that a no-deal Brexit is like an ‘act of God’ like flooding. It is perfectly possible to prevent it happening if the government acts now. Parliament has already signalled that it would support this as has the EU. The failure to do so is creating great damage and distress.”

Kerslake said the second fallacy was that Brexit could be safely delivered by 29 March. “Any serious analysis shows that the delay in getting an agreement means we are simply not ready,” he said. “There is not enough time now even to deal with the required legislation.”

The third fallacy, Kerslake said, was that completing a deal now would bring closure to the Brexit process. “In reality, it will just be the start of another round of equally contentious and pressured negotiations,” he said.

“If the government aren’t willing to level with the British people on these issues, then others in authority must do so. There is precedent here. The intervention by Simon Stevens in the NHS funding debate is a good example. 

“In these very dangerous times, it is not sufficient to just speak truth unto power. They also need to speak truth to the British people.”

Separately, Gus O’Donnell  wrote in London’s Evening Standard newspaper, edited by ex-chancellor George Osborne, that the government had no responsible alternative to seeking an extension to the UK’s Article 50-mandated leaving date. 

O’Donnell – who was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 2005-2011 – said the past two and a half years of experience had disproved notions that the UK could leave the EU and retain the benefits of membership.

But he said that recent attempts among MPs to back a deal of any sort risked creating an illusion of certainty about the future, when the political declaration accompanying the draft Withdrawal Agreement was full of ambiguity.

“I am not, of course, opposed to political compromise and I have even crafted a few myself in my time,” he said. 

“But what is being brushed over here is not nuance, it is a fundamental choice about how our economy, society and government will operate in years to come. Are we going to follow a Norwegian model or one from Singapore, Turkey, Switzerland or Albania? The truth is we do not know and it is, I am afraid to say, irresponsible for any government to even contemplate embarking on such a perilous journey as Brexit without giving us a clearer idea of the eventual destination.”

O’Donnell said that while both ministers and civil servants were coming under pressure to get the Brexit “job” done, the nation was not ready to leave the EU and should not leave until it had a clearer idea of where it was going.

He said that any final decision by MPs on on May’s Withdrawal Agreement would be “meaningless” rather than “meaningful” because the degree of ambiguity its supporting political declaration contained.

“The priority must be to seek an extension of the Article 50 timetable, to allow for a process of deliberation in parliament and the country about the direction of our future relationship with the EU,” he said. 

“I am firmly of the view that if we can find more time now to examine different options for Brexit, it will be time well spent.”

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