Politicians, not civil servants, to blame for Brexit deadlock says PACAC chair

Bernard Jenkin highlights the way Margaret Thatcher worked with the civil service to implement major policy changes as example for incoming PM

Photo: BBC

By Richard Johnstone

15 Jul 2019

Leading Brexit campaigner and senior select committee chair Bernard Jenkin has urged supporters of the UK’s exit from the European Union to blame politicians not civil servants for the fact that the country remains in the bloc.

In an article first published in the Financial Times, Jenkin, who chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, said wrote that the civil service is “a much criticised and misunderstood institution” amid the Brexit debate.

Writing after a week in which the Sir Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US, resigned after the leak of diplomatic cables that were criticised by some Brexit supporters  as undermining the UK’s plans for a close relationship with the US after Brexit, Jenkin said the contention by some Eurosceptics that the civil service is impeding Brexit was a “false notion”.


“The only reason the UK is still trapped in the EU is because of ministers, not the civil servants or the diplomats. Theresa May’s government could have done far more, with much more enthusiasm – and with more transparency – to prepare for leaving the EU on March 29, the scheduled Brexit date," Jenkin wrote.

“In fact, both former and serving Brexit ministers regularly describe how preparations for leaving are shelved, unannounced and hidden, blocked by other ministers who prefer to spread fear about Brexit rather than reassurance,” he said. “There was no legal impediment whatsoever to the UK leaving on March 29. Mrs May simply chose not to leave. There is, however, a lesson from all of this for the new Conservative leader and prime minister, entering No 10 for the first time later this month.”

Lessons from Thatcher

If the next prime minister – either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will replace Theresa May later this month –  wants to leave on October 31 “come what may”, as Johnson has pledged, he will need to appoint fresh ministers to give the civil servants clear and united ministerial direction, added Jenkin. “British civil servants and diplomats, imbued with decades of pro-EU policy, found a ready audience for their risk averse advice in Mrs May and most of her advisers and fellow ministers,” he said. "If the new PM is not to be derailed like his predecessor, then he must appoint Brexit enthusiasts to all the key ministerial and advisory roles.” 

Jenkin’s article sets out that Johnson or Hunt can learn from how Margaret Thatcher implemented radical policy changes while maintaining civil impartiality.

“When Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979, the Treasury, along with the vast majority of economists and much of industry, derided and sought to block her new monetarist economic policy,” he wrote. “She did not confront the whole of the civil service, nor did she ever criticise officials in public. Even though she only had a minority of believers in her cabinet overall, she made sure that supporters of her policy, including her chancellor Geoffrey Howe and financial secretary Nigel Lawson, occupied the key roles. The head of the civil service was persuaded to promote officials who would support the new policy. She brought in fresh thinking in people like Terry Burns as economic adviser.

"Over time, her policy become the new orthodoxy but this was achieved without ever questioning the principle of a permanent and impartial civil service, first established by the 1853 Northcote-Trevelyan settlement.

“This is the kind of leadership the civil service needs now. It means harnessing the extraordinary resilience of our civil and diplomatic services as their strength, not as an obstacle to change. Leading such a dramatic shift in favour of Brexit in the machinery of government may mean confronting one or two officials directly, but that will be enough.”

Unions defend officals

Jenkin’s article comes as civil service trade unions Prospect and the FDA have written an open letter to tackle the repeated attacks in the media on the integrity and impartiality of the civil service.

In a letter to the Observer, Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary and Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, said that “no group has done more to keep the country running than the civil service, and no group has received as little praise for it”.

They added: “It is they who handled the detail of the Brexit negotiations, despite the contradictory and unrealistic demands from parliament. It is civil servants who have made sure we are as prepared as possible for no deal, despite the ludicrously short time frame given by ministers. And while government ministers have checked out to focus on internal leadership elections, civil servants have kept the ship of state afloat.

“As a reward for this, civil servants have been subjected to sustained attacks from across the political spectrum. In recent months we have seen a malicious briefing campaign against individual civil servants involved in Brexit negotiations, attacks on Treasury officials when their forecasts warn of the dangers of no deal and the disgraceful attempt to blame civil servants for the national security leak involving Huawei. On top of this, just a few weeks ago we learned that civil servants will once again receive some of the worst pay awards in the public sector, far below what MPs themselves have received.”

They highlighted that the response to the leaks of Darroch’s diplomatic messages was “extraordinary and shameful, but it is part of a wider culture of abusing civil servants which has been allowed to develop over the last few years”.

They added: “Civil servants cannot respond to these attacks, and must not be a punch bag for politicians from the right or left. They are not part of a secretive deep state, they are deeply committed men and women doing their best to serve their country. If only more politicians would act in the same manner.”

Read the most recent articles written by Richard Johnstone - Building the future: Steven Boyd on making government property work for the civil service

Share this page