An exhausted government, an exhausted civil service

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As the government lumbers heavily towards its third ‘no-deal’ Brexit deadline, it has strongly asserted that there will be no extension to the transition period. Stella Perrott considers the government’s capacity to deliver a managed Brexit over the coming weeks in the light of the findings of the recent publication of the Institute for Government (IfG) report, The Civil Service after Brexit: Lessons from the Article 50 period.

The IfG report was published on 15 May and went largely unnoticed in the British press. The independent think tank, whose purpose is “working to make government more effective”, examined the response of the civil service to Brexit over the Article 50 period, i.e. those months from triggering Article 50 in March 2017 until the EU granted an extension on 10 October 2019. The report focuses on the civil service; criticism of government or ministerial actions is mentioned only to explore how the civil service responded to the challenges it faced.

The report’s arcane diplomatic language cannot hide the fact that, on beginning the Brexit journey, Prime Minister Theresa May, her cabinet and her civil servants were almost totally ignorant of the implications. They had no grasp of the amount of work delivery would require and the impact this would have on the machinery of government. Nearly five years on, the scale of the task has become apparent and it is clear that the machinery of government is creaking and groaning under the strain, leaving it insufficiently well equipped to deal with the next set of challenges.

In spite of railing against it, the government was largely unaware of the extent to which the UK was financially, legally, structurally and administratively embedded within the EU after 47 years of ‘ever closer union’, or the UK’s dependency on EU bodies for so many administrative functions. It had an inadequate conception of how many organisations and bodies would have to be replicated in the UK, the 400 plus pieces of legislation that would have to be amended or the 600 trade deals to be renegotiated – and all just to stand still.

Government and civil servants without direct responsibility had only a limited understanding of the complicated history of the Irish border and the Good Friday agreement – you may remember the newly appointed Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley stating that she was unaware that voters in Northern Ireland largely voted on sectarian lines. Similarly, they did not understand that the authority for Scottish devolution rested in some significant part on EU law.

Both May and Johnson understood Brexit through a party political window and responded accordingly. May’s tenure as prime minister was almost entirely focused on trying (and failing) to find compromises, ‘fudges’, around which her divided cabinet and the Conservative Party might cohere. Boris Johnson, more decisively, opted to cull opposition within the cabinet and parliament, and was intent only on getting the Brexit legislation to a point where it was irreversible or, in his words, ‘done’. Both were content to relegate decisions, costs and impact to second or even fifth tier problems to be worked on at a later date, and by somebody else. For all May’s self-advertised ‘caution’, triggering Article 50 was a reckless decision, equalled only by Johnson prohibiting an extension of Article 50 the day after the World Health Organisation announced a flu pandemic.

May, with her attention to detail, developed a grasp of the issues more quickly than Johnson, and she enabled those who understood Europe, especially Olly Robbins, her chief Brexit negotiator, to use their knowledge constructively. Beyond May’s small circle however, civil servants like Robbins were regarded as politically suspect and “too close to Europe” and he was eventually replaced by David Frost, a political appointee and a known Brexiteer.

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Not only were many in the civil service initially sidelined as being ideologically unsound, so too was business. Neither Johnson nor Theresa May engaged with business as they prepared for Brexit and civil servants found it difficult to work with business leaders without a ministerial mandate to do so. Although not mentioned in the report, the widely publicised Johnson remark “fuck business” in 2019 appears to have been a fairly accurate reflection of his views. This negative attitude was not just restricted to Johnson. Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary refused to meet with business leaders once they became critical of the government’s approach to Brexit.

Johnson also disengaged from Northern Ireland once his majority shed the necessity of courting the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This unwillingness to engage with those who were not of the faith combined with his inability to grasp detail led Johnson, perhaps unwittingly, to agree custom and border checks in the Irish Sea. While spinning this climb-down as indicative of the government’s power to unlock Theresa May’s deal for a revision, had he understood what he was doing, he might have preferred the doors to have remained more firmly closed.

We learn from the IfG report that, initially, the civil service struggled to respond to the challenges of Brexit. It was unprepared for the Brexit vote (David Cameron had not permitted preparations) and it was unexpected, the civil servants in Whitehall largely operating in “a political and social silo”. It adapted fairly quickly and set to on over 500 work streams and a similar number of legislative changes. It proved itself to be flexible, innovative and able to respond well to the new demands placed on it. Civil service promotions and reputations hinge on successful policy implementation and Brexit was viewed by many as a once-in-life-time career opportunity; a large cross-cutting project, developing policy and strategy from scratch and ‘at pace’.

All this had a cost:

“Papers outlining details of the next meeting arrived at 18:00. Departments would have three hours to compile briefings on technical issues that relied on specialist input. By 21:30, briefings would go to senior civil servants, who worked overnight to make changes, request clarifications and sign off proposals. By 9:30 the next morning, the secretary of state would be briefed for the 10:00 meeting”.

Every rejection of May’s deal, every government U-turn, every parliamentary challenge, and every threat of no-deal required a huge tranche of additional work to support ministers as they faced opposition from all sides. As soon as deadlines and emergencies passed and an Article 50 extension was agreed (twice in 2019) civil servants were disbanded back to their home departments to pick up those jobs they had neglected for months at a time.

The pace of work and pressures placed on the civil service described in the IfG report was relentless. The description helps makes sense of what initially seemed an unprecedented and extreme decision made by Philip Putman in February 2020, to resign from the Home Office and take his employer to an employment tribunal. In his resignation statement he cited the collapse of a subordinate following a whole night spent working in an unsuccessful effort to protect the Home Secretary, Priti Patel from judicial review. This sort of working pattern mirrors that found by the IfG which suggests it may be more than an isolated incident. The report commends the measures the civil service took to reduce strain on staff and the mental health support systems that were introduced, but clearly they were insufficient in the circumstances.

The most difficult challenge civil servants faced was the government’s willingness to break the law, defy the courts and tear up the constitutional conventions that checked government power. While civil servants serve the government of the day, they are obliged to uphold the law and it is almost unheard of for that tension to be tested to its absolute limit as it so nearly was. In the end, the government backed off and fulfilled its obligations, even if only after the Supreme Court intervened. The relentless and sometimes inappropriate pressure put on civil servants was often accompanied by disdain and disparagement in the press. As the report notes, “[t]he civil service and individual officials were left exposed in a polarised political environment – with prime ministers unwilling to offer protection”. This was translated by the Guardian as: “May and Johnson hung civil servants out to dry”. We are now seeing similar behaviour by ministers towards their scientific advisors as their handling of coronavirus is challenged.

The report discusses in some detail how well the civil service responded to the demands place on it and its resilience in coping with the work load and challenging environment. It notes the loss of expertise as staff returned to home departments after the first wave of no-deal work, and how difficult it was to resource the second wave as people were exhausted or just wanted some time to enjoy family life. Many senior staff, having gained significant Brexit expertise resigned or moved to other departments.

Although not part of the study, the report writers were alert to the impact coronavirus was already having on the civil service and how their physical and mental resources have been depleted by almost continuous government crises since 2016. The capacity of the civil service and ministers to revert from coronavirus to Brexit as another no-deal cliff edge looms must be questioned. It is inconceivable that ministers such as Matt Hancock (already exhausted if TV appearances are a guide) and his civil servants, will be able to shift attention any time soon from coronavirus to post-Brexit preparations. It has taken the government almost every moment of the past five years to get up to speed on the implications of Brexit and while the paper trail will be found on computers and in filing cabinets, much individual and institutional knowledge has already been lost.