In Preparing Brexit we highlighted the problem of co-ordinating Brexit preparations in Whitehall. Plans for multiple scenarios, split across almost 20 departments and 300 workstreams, littered with interdependencies and plagued by ministerial differences. Nowhere is the challenge greater than in preparations for the no deal scenario.
Now, a response to one of our Freedom of Information (FOI) requests reveals one piece of critical extra machinery for managing these preparations: the EU Exit Inter-Ministerial Group. Set up in July 2017, this is the influential Brexit group the Government didn’t want you to know about. Its chief purpose is to try to get divided ministers and divergent departments in to line.
At the centre of the Government’s coordination efforts is DExEU. The department, recently relieved of its negotiating responsibilities, is tasked with lining up plans and reporting to the Cabinet on the state of preparations. As the year has gone by, it’s taken an increasing role on no deal planning. There are windowless rooms filled with project plans and risk registers, tracking the progress of work right across government.
But the department has no real hard levers for driving delivery. It’s responsible for co-ordination but not for the actual implementation of any of the projects. It doesn’t hold the purse strings and it doesn’t dish out resources. It has, however, two things it can use for co-ordination: information it collects from cross-Whitehall reports and political capital.
That’s where the Inter-Ministerial Group comes in.
The Inter-Ministerial Group is DExEU’s mechanism for corralling Whitehall. The group is chaired by a DExEU Minister, now Dominic Raab. Other regular attendees are Cabinet Office ministers (who ensure Brexit projects have resources and capability) and Treasury ministers (who hand out the Brexit cash).
These ‘dragons’ – from the three key departments responsible for co-ordination – then call on their colleagues from the top of other government departments to come in for a grilling.
The dragons are furnished with data and progress reports compiled by the Policy and Delivery Co-ordination Directorate in DExEU. The information allows them to press ministers on their departments’ performance, asking them to justify if they are behind, explain if plans don’t line up or request additional support from the centre.
The EU Exit Inter-Ministerial Group is an example of the ‘star chamber’ approach, traditionally used by the Treasury to bring collective pressure to bear on recalcitrant spending colleagues to settle their budgets. A time-honoured tactic used in the 1980s and 1990s Conservative governments, star chambers fell into disuse under Labour but were revived under George Osborne’s Chancellorship.
David Cameron also used to chair a committee to oversee implementation of his priorities, challenging and coaxing Secretaries of State – in front of their colleagues and based on information provided by his central team – to ensure progress on the issues that mattered to him.
The interesting question is whether the star chamber on Brexit is designed to bring laggards up to the mark, or to ensure individual plans add up.
The co-ordination task on Brexit is unprecedented. But on top of this there are political divisions within the Cabinet, which makes aligning plans extremely difficult. Different ministers have different views of what would happen in a no deal scenario. They also disagree on the relative likelihood of different scenarios, focusing their efforts on what they think is the likely outcome. In some areas, they are prioritising their department’s limited resources on the outcome they would prefer.
The practical job of delivering Brexit is huge, but the political task is just as complex. Hauling ministers in front of their colleagues to explain progress might be a blunt instrument, but there’s not enough time for anything subtler. The ‘star chamber’ approach is a helpful tool for DExEU to leverage its position to try and drive implementation.
The question is, why has it been kept so hidden? The EU Exit Inter-Ministerial Group sits alongside another fourteen groups – again, information on these is not publicly available – including one on Brexit borders and others covering ‘Child Sexual Abuse’, ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’, ‘Social Care’ and ‘Mental Health’.
Cabinet Committees and Task Forces are listed, along with their membership and terms of reference, on the Government’s website. There’s no reason why these groups should be treated differently. They represent the Prime Minister’s priorities and appear to be becoming increasingly influential. It is disappointing that we needed an FOI to draw out the details – the Government should publish this information routinely.