Theresa May entered Downing Street on 13 July 2016, just days after the UK had voted to leave the European Union. Even though the issue would quickly come to define her premiership, Brexit did not yet mean Brexit when the new occupant of Number 10 spoke outside the famous black door.
Indeed, the job of extracting Britain from the bloc merited only one mention as May set out a series of burning injustices that she would make it her priority to tackle.
“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you,” she said. “As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world.”
It was also not clear that Brexit would soon consume all of government’s energy as May set about reshaping Whitehall to meet her priorities. Not only was there the much-debated decision to set up the Department for Exiting the European Union to lead the negotiations, the Department for International Trade was founded to help find that global role, while a beefed-up business department was focused on developing the UK’s first industrial strategy.
This, FDA general secretary Dave Penman says, was a period of Brexit phoney war when “I don’t think people realised this is actually all-encompassing”.
“It was like in the Second World War, when we declared war but not a lot actually happened.”
Penman says that while there was always lot of talk about Brexit, things only started to “get real” after May’s January 2017 Lancaster House speech – which set out her Brexit strategy – and the general election a few months later, in which the Conservatives lost their majority.
One former minister says May’s popularity in those early months emboldened her and her team, and by extension the centre of Whitehall, to feel the government could do more than Brexit.
“There was a sense of momentum and the ability to change and shape things, and the referendum gave you licence to look fresh at things and offer a more direct policy answer,” the ex-minister, who asked not to be named, says. “That was part of it, but it was also certainly the case that people just didn’t realise how time-consuming Brexit would be.”
The scale of the job surprised government, Penman recalls. “I was speaking to a senior official in the DExEU team who explained that on top of all the formal infrastructure of the EU, dozens of institutions had grown out of the EU as new challenges emerged and countries recognised that cooperation across nation states was necessary. It made sense for these to be organised around the EU but no one had ever really scoped these out or registered just how complex detangling ourselves from them would be.”
Those in government began to recognise the scale of the task within three months, the ex-minister says, “and it became more clear every day” that any additional agenda for a May government would struggle.
Once the negotiations were properly under way, the task was made more difficult by the unprecedented attacks from Brexiteers on civil servants. Penman says there has never been a time when the civil service has been more under attack from the party of government – both from the despatch box, with then-Brexit minster Steve Baker casting doubt on government forecasts in January 2018, and from the backbenches. Witness Tory MP Mark Francois, who has accused officials of treason.
CSW understands that an early response to the attacks was coordinated between Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, but did not get signed off after it was decided that it would have made matters worse if government hit back. There was then no central response until the then-acting cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill criticised Brexiteer “sniping” at EU lead negotiator Olly Robbins in October 2018.
May’s “absolute silence” on these attacks will be her legacy, Penman says.
“May’s hesitancy to confront those issues really undermined the civil service and has encouraged that type of criticism,” adds Penman. “It has gone unchallenged, [and] that has been a big failing. That probably is her biggest legacy for the civil service.”
Other senior union figures agree.
Garry Graham, deputy general secretary at Prospect, says this was “the most striking thing” about May’s premiership.
“When those in her our own party have been unfairly critical of the civil service as part of Brexit, has she taken those people to task? No. The extreme example of that is Mark Francois, but there’s plenty of other examples where Conservative politicians have criticised officials and the prime minister has not come forward to defend them – public servants who can’t answer back – with the energy I would expect a prime minister to do.”
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka says the way sources close to Amber Rudd pointed the finger at Home Office officials over her briefings when she had to resign due to misleading parliament at the height of the Windrush crisis was part of the same issue.
“We’ve had unrelenting hostility from the Conservatives in government towards the civil service and towards civil service unions,” he adds. “We now have an unashamed blaming of civil servants for things that clearly lie at the door of politicians, because of the policies that politicians enact.”
Serwotka highlights that all this came at a time when civil service pay was being restrained by a 1.5% average limit, despite government’s pledge in September 2017 to remove the public sector pay cap.
“[Civil service] pay has clearly collapsed in comparison to the rest of the public sector. As prime minister she’s responsible for a large part of that.”
Graham agrees pay policy is “unsustainable, unfair and has to change”, and will for many civil servants be May’s legacy.
“That will be top of people’s reflections on her,” he said. “The civil service is working harder than ever before with Brexit, and find themselves the poor relations. They find that galling and hypocritical.”
Among the Brexit pressures, Penman can find one benefit. The prioritisation of leaving the EU by May and her ministers left departments “free to get on with things”, he says “without the [former Cabinet Office minister Francis] Maude-type interference” from the centre that marked David Cameron’s premiership.
“That has actually been quite helpful. It has created a stability around the civil service and what they’re doing, which seems unusual given everything else.
“It’s not that there has been no reform. One of the things departments have always said is that, ‘we reform because we have to – we’ve got punishing financial targets to meet, therefore we’re having to change things’. And not being told by the Cabinet Office minister to do things has allowed them to do that.”
This has “helped the civil service get its mojo back a little bit”, Penman says – both in terms of its own confidence under pressure and in (most) ministers understanding and recognising its value.
But, as with so much in May’s premiership, this was due to the one issue leading government, rather than the person at its head. “That was Brexit, that’s not May or anything she’s done; that’s the fact that Brexit happened,” he says.
“You sometimes feel that [former prime minister] Tony Blair’s legacy is Iraq and everything else is forgotten. With May the legacy is going to be Brexit, and there’s nothing else to forget.”