Setting up the Department for Exiting was a “misguided” move that led to tensions within government that undermined the Brexit process, the Institute for Government has said.
A report published by the think tank, which also highlighted a lack of trust from politicians in officials leading the negotiations, said the tension between the Brexit department and No. 10 was one of several weaknesses in the government’s first attempt to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU.
Splitting responsibilities for Brexit coordination between the two departments “ultimately proved unsustainable”, the IfG said. It noted that two Brexit secretaries had resigned because they were “unhappy about being cut out of decisions and felt sidelined by the prime minister and her Europe adviser and chief official negotiators”.
“This feeling of division at the top of the negotiating team was compounded by the secretive approach adopted by the prime minister and her advisers,” it added.
This division of duties is one of several strategic missteps that the IfG said the government must reconsider in the coming months, as it uses the six-month Brexit extension to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the EU.
The report called on the government to strip DExEU of any responsibility for coordinating negotiations with the EU between now and the revised Brexit deadline of 31 October. “Co-ordination by the Cabinet Office, as the trusted neutral secretariat, would avoid the confusion and conflict of Phase One [of the negotiations],” it said.
The Europe Unit, a small group in the Cabinet Office that coordinates the UK’s approach to Brexit, should be “beefed up” and given a dual role of supporting UK negotiators and the decision-making machinery in London, it said.
The IfG also recommended the government make better use of the trade expertise in the Department for International Trade, which is expected to have only a “limited role” in negotiating the economic partnership with the EU. “Given how limited trade expertise is in the UK government, it makes no sense to cut out the department where that expertise is supposed to reside – and the government needs to remove any barriers to using that expertise," the think tank said.
Other recommendations included instigating a more effective strategy for engaging with parliament and the devolved administrations, appointing a ministerial deputy to the prime minister in the Cabinet Office to oversee day-to-day negotiations, and improving decision-making structures that encourage better use of external expertise.
The report also underlined concerns about criticism of the civil servants working on Brexit. Officials have been subject to attacks both in the media and from politicians, who have accused them of trying to undermine the Brexit process.
The IfG said this distrust of civil servants, particularly from backbench politicians, undermined their efforts to secure a withdrawal agreement.
“Politicians, particularly on the government backbenches, did not trust the UK’s official negotiators. Politicians routinely criticised the UK civil servants conducting the day-to-day negotiations, particularly the prime minister’s ‘sherpa’ and chief negotiator, Olly Robbins.
“Ministers, from the prime minister down, were unclear about the instructions they gave to officials, allowing political opponents to claim political decisions by the government were made independently by the civil service.”
Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: "“We are working closely across all parts of government to deliver an orderly Brexit and reach a consensus on a way forward that is in the national interest.
“As we move into the next phase of negotiations, we will continue to seek a wide range of views including from parliament, devolved administrations, businesses and civil society.”