Civil servants are working at the limit of their powers to plan for a no-deal Brexit due to the uncertainty over who will the next prime minister, according to a former leading HM Revenue and Customs official.
Former HMRC director general for border coordination Karen Wheeler said officials are having to “negotiate” the boundaries of preparing for no deal due to uncertainty over the next prime minister’s intentions before the UK’s next Brexit deadline.
Theresa May is set to be replaced by either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt later this month, but Wheeler told an Institute for Government panel discussion that there were some preparations for a no-deal exit from the European Union that could not wait.
Wheeler, who was led the cross-government Border Delivery Group until leaving HMRC last month, said the leadership vacuum was just one issue that staff faced in preparing for the revised Brexit deadline.
“What civil servants are doing is trying to negotiate how much they can do without having to wait for a new prime minister,” she said. “It all has to be done imminently.”
She also told Wednesday’s session that preparations for a no-deal Brexit on October 31 – the extended Article 50 date – would build on work carried out for in preparation for the original deadline of March 29.
But the combination of the process to select a new Conservative Party leader, parliament’s summer recess, and the September conference season will eat into ministers’ time. In particular, Wheeler said, awareness-raising events and marketing campaigns targeting businesses over the next three months need to be signed off now.
Asked how long the new prime minister will have before they need to “hit the red button” and start rebuilding operational readiness for a no-deal Brexit, Wheeler said “not long”.
“The assumption is that all of those arrangements that were planned for March and April will largely need to be replaced and put in place for October 31,” she said.
“Those are ready to go, I’m sure [HMRC], like every other government department, knew when we needed to start turning things on again."
She added: “So our view was that we needed to start getting preparations ready to go in July in order to be ready for October 31, although some things can wait later than that.”
Wheeler said she believed the civil service had done everything it could to prepare for the original Article 50 deadline. But she said that did not mean a no-deal Brexit at that time would have been an “everything is fine” situation.
“I think we felt like we had done everything that we could to mitigate as far as we could, but there were some areas of no-deal where the consequences did feel particularly difficult,” she said.
“Goods and trade at the Channel and Northern Ireland … frankly, you can’t mitigate those risks away and all you can do is cope with the consequences.”
Wheeler said that preparations for a no-deal Brexit in March had been an important exercise that had essentially taken three months of concerted effort after many more months of groundwork.
“It felt like we were preparing for a crisis where we didn’t fully – couldn’t fully – understand how it would play out,” she said.
“But every part of government felt like it had its plans in in place. It knew what it needed to do; it knew the critical areas where there were the biggest risks and we had plans in place.
“Post-Christmas, this got into a very regular drumbeat where all of government were united in following through on the issues. Exactly as you would expect.”
Wheeler said that while government and the civil service had a key role to play in preparing for a no-deal Brexit, it was only part of the picture.
“When government says it is ready as it can be it is mostly saying we have done everything that we can to develop the processes, communicate the processes; develop the systems, communicate the systems; put the arrangements in place so that the users and operators of the border can work,” she said.
“But what we can’t do is ensure that every other aspect will work, and every other aspect of industry will be prepared. What that means is that there are consequences if traders and businesses are not ready, because there will be problems for them at the border if they are not.”
Wheeler said the effective ban on joint contingency planning between UK and Republic of Ireland civil servants left more question marks over how a no-deal Brexit would be handled at the UK’s only land border with the European Union.
“We are clear that Ireland has arrangements in place at Dublin for goods from Holyhead, but it is not at all clear what arrangements it would put in place [for the land border] and therein lies part of the problem in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“Without knowing what the arrangements are on the other side of the border, it’s extremely difficult for [traders] to prepare.
“There will be tariff barriers as well as regulatory control barriers, but they don’t know how they can prepare for those.”
Wheeler also said that the suggestion that advances in technology would provide a solution to the Northern Ireland border in the absence of a withdrawal agreement was wrong.
“Technology alone is not going to solve that border problem,” she said.
“It needs to be around other arrangements as well. It has to be done in a way that is going to work in both directions, on both sides of the border, which is clearly extremely difficult to try and achieve when we’re not able to discuss these things with Irish colleagues. And in any case the technology is not in place anytime soon.”