20 May 2019

The stalling of political progress on Brexit has left frustrated civil servants without any sense of what they are working towards, writes Joe Owen.

The UK is now more than a month into the second Article 50 extension, and the Government and Opposition talks to find a mysterious and illusive Brexit compromise have collapsed. Parliament has been dancing around Brexit to avoid bust-ups before the introduction of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. And the civil service? Well, that’s much less clear.

There is a huge amount to do. As Sir Jeremy Heywood, the late Cabinet Secretary, said, Brexit’s scale and complexity is unprecedented in the UK’s peacetime history. As of last month, there were 16,000 civil servants working on Brexit. If they were all plonked in one Whitehall department then it would be the sixth biggest department – bigger than the Foreign Office, Treasury, Defra and Cabinet Office all combined.

But all this horsepower is working to a set of scenarios that are at best massively uncertain and at worse not credible.

No deal is still the default – but the extension doesn’t make preparing any easier

The legal default is that the UK will leave the EU without a deal on the 31 October. It doesn’t matter that the Government has twice opted for extension over exit without a deal; if the Withdrawal Agreement hasn’t been passed by October, then a no deal Brexit is still a possible outcome. The EU could refuse a further extension or the UK Government – whether it is led by this Prime Minister or a different one – could decide to call time on its attempts to pass a deal.

So the contingency plans that were being implemented at break-neck pace in February and March have not been binned. The big operational readiness plans – which sees staff working 24 hours a day on emergency shifts – are back, being refined, on the drawing board. The systems and processes that were being developed (and that usually would require much longer) have not stopped. The extra months will just be used to get the civil service a little more prepared.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the UK will be in a better position for no deal in October. The big challenge for the civil service is getting business and those outside government ready. Some urgency was injected earlier this year, but businesses won’t want to burn more cash on a scenario which the Government has already cried wolf over twice.

Whitehall is also preparing for the next phase of Brexit talks – but those plans will be changed by a new prime minister

Civil servants are also using this time to think about how to run the next phase of talks. This involves building on the detail of departmental positions and putting in place structures to support what will be a much broader, more intense set of negotiations.

But the reality is that their work could change massively once a new prime minister is in place. The civil service might be working to a model that has DExEU at the centre of talks, but the creation of the department was a political decision and its abolition (whenever that comes) will be too. A new prime minister will want new structures, built around new people.

He or she will also have new ideas for negotiating positions. A number of Tory leadership candidates have been very vocal in their criticisms of how Brexit has been run to date, so a change of approach is almost certain. The civil service should be thinking carefully about how it will advise a new prime minister on structures and possible starting points, but also on what a no deal might mean and what kind of negotiations are likely to follow that outcome.

The work the civil service is doing now is important preparation, but it could – and probably will – have to turn on a sixpence for an incoming prime minister.

Longer-term planning is happening to a timeline that is simply not credible and – in some respects – counterproductive

The other Brexit big job for civil servants is to prepare for life after the negotiations. A whole raft of officials are designing and implementing new policies – from agriculture to immigration – to be in place at the end of a possible transition period.

The current date they are working to is January 2021. A 21-month transition – as it would have been if the UK had left in March – was always a stretch, but it is simply not credible to argue that a 14-month transition – which is the current scenario if the UK leaves the EU in October with a deal –  is anywhere near sufficient for the next phase of talks.

That means that the civil service is working to planning timelines which are unrealistic but, in a world without any certainty, they have no alternative. The consequences are significant. For example, the immigration system that can be built and delivered by January 2021 would be much less ambitious, and much more risky, than a structure which could be put in place with an extra year or two – if/when the transition is extended. 

Over the next few months, however, civil servants will be taking important decisions on policy design or contracting suppliers. And yet, three years after the referendum, Whitehall is still in the dark about when Brexit might happen, let alone on what it will mean.