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The UK will probably never be as ready for no deal as it was in March

The prospect of a no deal Brexit is growing but a new prime minister might be surprised by the lack of preparation.

The prospect of a no deal Brexit is growing but, writes Joe Owen, a new prime minister might be surprised by the lack of preparation.

“If you are reading this, it’s because you are now responsible for...”

All across Whitehall, civil servants will be writing documents with a similar purpose: they are in the process of handing over their responsibilities. Ministers aren’t alone in expecting to be in new jobs by the end of the summer; many officials, who have been through a gruelling time on Brexit, will also be on the move.

Whether it is responsibility for critical no deal plans, key pieces of Brexit legislation or important policy positions, the architects of much of the UK Government’s Brexit preparations are unlikely to be in the same place by the autumn. Inevitably, this means that the UK Government is unlikely to be as ready for no deal in October as it was back in March.

Civil service turnover is likely to mean a lack of experience in key no deal jobs

Most senior managers in the civil service change jobs after two years. Three years on from the referendum, and two months on from the original Article 50 deadline, many of the 16,000 civil servants working on Brexit will now be looking for a change of scenery.

Philip Rycroft, the civil servant in charge of DExEU, left on the 29 March – even though the UK did not. He was replaced by Clare Moriarty (who was in charge of Defra), meaning that two of the most Brexit-focused departments had to make changes in their top team. The official who led on much of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations has taken a promotion to DCMS. The official in charge of border preparations is retiring from the civil service.

There is likely to be even more churn in the levels below, even if it’s not as visible externally. By October, with the Brexit deadline rapidly approaching, the officials in some of the key no deal jobs could have been in post for little more than a few months.

Gearing up the Whitehall machine for October is not going to be easy

The internal civil service jobs market means that if you want to ‘get on’ then you need ‘move on’, but the rate of turnover also reflects the fact that many officials were worked into the ground in the run up to 29 March. Perhaps this is the price of public service, but the prospect of building up to another Brexit deadline is, understandably, not that appetising for some.

A lot of the officials drafted in as emergency support have returned to their old departments or moved on to new jobs, while the operational centres – for ‘Yellowhammer’ contingency plans – have been stood down. They will need to be resurrected and re-staffed, and earlier rounds of staff training will need to be repeated. At the same time, the energy and focus of those still in post on no deal jobs may be reduced second time round.

There’s a big risk that business will be even less ready for no deal in October

Despite some ministerial assurances of detailed government preparations ahead of the March deadline, the reality is that business was unprepared. The Government tried to shift the blame in February when it published a document that said, in essence, ‘we are doing lots but it’s the public and business that’s not ready’. Preparing businesses and the public for major change might normally be seen as part of the Government’s basic responsibility. Apparently not, when it comes to Brexit.

There’s little evidence that the extra six months are being used to make a difference. Some of the businesses that burned cash to prepare for a no deal that never came will be reluctant to do it again. Some point out that stock piling ahead of October will be harder than it was in the spring – warehouses are booked up in preparation for Christmas. Some doubt that no deal will really happen, while others will be unsure what key date to work towards. Will it be 31 October? Or a couple of weeks into November? Could there be a 'technical extension' to the end of the year? That may not matter to the Tory leadership contenders – but it is a critical piece of planning information.

When Theresa May’s successor walks into 10 Downing Street for the first time, the 31 October Brexit deadline will be that bit closer. Perhaps a bullish and bold Brexiteer prime minister will be able to galvanise business and the civil service to prepare for no deal. Or perhaps, if they also boast about renegotiating a Brexit deal, they will just be seen as crying wolf. Either way, they are likely to inherit a set of plans for no deal that are not much more developed than they were in March – and may well be overseen by a set of faces that are either too fresh or too jaded for the task.

Institute for Government

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