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A new Conservative government should abolish DExEU on 1 February

The government should abolish the Department for Exiting the EU on 1 February.

Joe Owen says that the Department for Exiting the EU has always been an awkward fit in Whitehall – and the government should call time on the department on 1 February. 

On the morning after the election, in a room deep within Whitehall, senior advisers and officials will huddle around a whiteboard and help the new, or returning, prime minister to draw up a new Cabinet.

The media will focus on the individuals – who is getting a big job and who is being relegated to the backbenches – but prime ministers often use the process to make and break government departments, not just political careers. Although the Conservative manifesto says nothing about any departmental changes, reports of plans are starting to emerge.

If Boris Johnson finds himself back in Number 10, there is one question he won’t be able to ignore – the fate of the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).

DExEU has been the source of political headaches over the last three years

Theresa May announced the new Brexit department on her first full day in office, alongside the creation of the Department for International Trade (DIT). She made the commitment as part of her leadership bid, both to signal her priorities and to give big Cabinet roles to Brexiteers – in other words, DExEU was created for political purposes. We argued against its creation in 2016, saying it could cause more problems than it would solve.

The new department created headaches for May throughout her three years in office. Two of DExEU’s three secretaries of state resigned over disagreements on policy; the one who didn’t, Stephen Barclay, voted against a government Brexit motion just minutes after making the closing arguments for it from the dispatch box.

May gradually moved responsibility for the UK’s Brexit policy away from DExEU and closer to her own control, but problems arising from the department’s awkwardness were not limited to her premiership. Under Johnson, the role of Brexit secretary became increasingly blurred, with operational readiness (no-deal planning in particular) handed to Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office, and David Frost, Johnson’s Europe adviser, taking over responsibility for negotiations. The problems weren’t played out in public, but this relationship was far from frictionless.

DExEU has caused practical problems for the Brexit process

This uncertainty regarding roles has also created practical problems, with different work being commissioned from the same teams in departments across Whitehall – a duplication of effort at a time when the civil service was already stretched nearly to breaking point. Perhaps most damagingly, political differences at the top fueled secrecy and prevented information from flowing.

The vast majority of DExEU’s work – and the key functions it performed – were vital. The UK needed teams to co-ordinate negotiations centrally, keep oversight of practical preparations, track legislation and take ownership of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) and the EU Withdrawal Act.

At the time, however, the department felt more like a player with its own interests rather than one which performed a traditional co-ordinating function. And the strained political climate created by Brexit only made its intended role harder.

DExEU should be abolished and its functions allocated to the Cabinet Office

Whitehall does not yet know how it will set up for any future UK–EU relationship negotiations, but two things are clear. First, the prime minister, rather than any departmental secretary of state, will be the ultimate decision maker. Second, the negotiations will need to draw on expertise from across Whitehall – on a much bigger scale than was necessary during the first phase of talks.

This points towards negotiations being run from the Cabinet Office – with a dedicated unit responsible for providing support to UK negotiators and decision making in Whitehall. This is an approach we argued for earlier this year. The unit would be able to draw on departmental policy expertise (a common Cabinet Office function), and could do so without the accusations of alternative agendas that caused conflict and confusion in phase one.

A Cabinet Office unit could also work more closely with the trade secretariat and DIT, removing the inherent tension in the current set-up: there is little logic in having a department for international trade that is completely separate from the one negotiating the UK’s most important international trade agreement. But merging both into a single department with a secretary of state – as has been rumoured – could prove just to repeat the same mistakes of the last three years.

The other huge Brexit-related task for next year will be improving readiness – making sure government and the country is ready for when the transition ends, whether there is a deal or not. With Michael Gove effectively leading on this from the Cabinet Office in the period before the election, moving the DExEU team into the department would formally reinforce existing ways of working.

This will require an expanded ministerial team: it is important that this is led by a senior minister with the clout to drive progress and co-ordination.

Johnson should wait until after 31 January – for practical as well as political reasons – to abolish DExEU

If Johnson wins the general election then he might decide that the symbolic moment to abolish DExEU would be 1 February – the day after the UK formally leaves the EU and enters the transition period.

This has some practical logic. DExEU’s other important function is drafting Brexit-related legislation. Having a full team of ministers able to guide the WAB through Parliament in January will give the government precious extra parliamentary capacity.

Rearranging departments is not straightforward. It causes uncertainty, hits productivity, creates back-office headaches and can cost millions. But the nature of this particular move means it is unlikely to be as disruptive as some past changes: DExEU already shares a building, and back-office functions, with the Cabinet Office – and was always intended to be a temporary installation in Whitehall.

The prime minister cannot afford to get this move wrong. Next year will be as fast-paced and demanding as 2019, and poorly designed structures will only make things harder. Giving officials time in January to work through the details of the restructuring and provide support to those affected could make a big difference. 

Bringing an end to DExEU would demonstrate that the prime minister has carefully reflected on the last three years and is determined to avoid the mistakes that have been a feature of the Brexit process to date.

The end of DExEU does not mean the end of Brexit, no matter how much the prime minister would like it to be "done". Nor does it indicate a slowdown in Brexit-related work. If anything, the task will become more complicated and the numbers of civil servants working on Brexit will continue to rise rapidly.

Brexit is the job of almost every single department of Whitehall. And it will continue to be, well beyond 2020. But it needs one voice from the centre of government to provide clarity, focus and leadership.

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