Former Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser has accused prime minister Theresa May and the government of never having had a viable plan for leaving the EU and said any attempt to scapegoat civil servants over the UK's Brexit turmoil would be “completely wrong and unfair”.
Fraser, who led the department from 2010 to 2015, did not lay all of the blame for the nation’s ongoing Brexit uncertainty at the feet of the prime minister. But he did say the process had been “badly mishandled” from the start and was critical of the way key decisions that ultimately rested with May had been taken.
Although Fraser has never been a proponent of the UK leaving the EU, his criticisms – made in a Channel 4 News interview – were as much about the approach to implementing the 2016 referendum decision as they were about the decision itself.
“The whole thing has been badly mishandled. But in the end, the point is that people were sold a false prospectus from the start,” he said, adding that he did not believe Brexit could have been delivered “in the form it was sold”.
“What could have been delivered, or what should have happened, is a much fuller process of consultation before we went forward in: a) setting out very rigid terms for Brexit; and b) actually triggering Article 50 without a plan.
“We haven’t had a viable plan all the way through and here we are at the last minute scrabbling to extend the process.”
Fraser said he believed civil servants had done their best to deliver Brexit in accordance with the democratic mandate of the referendum in the face of “very little political clarity” about the type of deal the government was seeking.
“I don’t actually think you can blame civil servants and the idea of scapegoating civil servants for this is completely wrong and unfair,” he said.
“[Lead Brexit negotiator] Olly Robbins led a negotiation which has led to a proposed deal. What we have discovered is that parliament doesn’t like that deal, and actually parliament doesn’t like any deal.
“Over time, really what we have learnt is that there is no good form of Brexit that the country is prepared to unite behind.”
Fraser said the longer the turmoil surrounding Brexit “dragged on”, the more the UK’s influence and global reputation would be damaged.
He sidestepped a question about whether there should be an inquiry into Brexit – a move backed by former civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake and predicted by former cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell.
“Frankly, my own view is that we need to focus on finding a way forward,” Fraser said.
“The sensible thing to do now is to extend the process and accept [president of the European Council] Donald Tusk’s offer, and to step back and think about where we now are. And stop banging our heads against the same brick wall and getting the same result.”
Fraser said he believed Theresa May would succeed in getting an Article 50 extension from the EU later this week, despite the technical requirement for a “clear proposal” setting out why an extension is necessary. “She doesn’t seem to have that,” he said.
“Nevertheless, on balance I think the EU will grant a further extension so that we avoid no deal which, by the way, I think would be a disastrous outcome and would not facilitate further negotiation. It would actually make it much more difficult.”