28 March 2017

Oliver Ilott argues that Theresa May will need to carve out a group of three or four Cabinet colleagues to make the rapid decisions necessary to negotiate a deal with the EU inside the two-year window.

Once Article 50 is triggered, negotiations will begin. Both sides have spent the last nine months identifying negotiating positions, but there’s no way to anticipate every twist and turn of the talks. Officials will need to revert to politicians throughout the process for clearance to make trade-offs, concessions or new proposals.

The narrow Article 50 negotiations may only involve a small range of departments beyond the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) – notably HM Treasury and the Home Office. But if a comprehensive free trade deal is to be agreed inside two-year negotiating period, this relay between UK officials in Brussels and the politicians in London must work quickly.

This means turning around decisions that involve a wide range of departments in days rather than weeks. Before the negotiations begin, the Government needs to have a process for making these decisions quickly.

Cabinet is too large and meets too infrequently to provide rapid judgement on technical negotiating issues. Even the smaller Cabinet Committee for Exiting the EU and International Trade, with 12 members (carefully selected to balance Remainers and Leavers), is still too large a group to muster whenever a decision is required.

Instead, the rapid pace of the negotiations will require the Government to adopt a ‘war Cabinet’ approach. It mirrors the approach used by prime ministers of the recent past to make decisions during armed conflicts or incidents like foot and mouth, when normal Cabinet committee processes are too cumbersome to keep pace with the demands of decision making.

This should be a small group, perhaps no more than Theresa May, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, and one or two other ministers, and crucially needs to have the authority to respond to questions in hours not days or weeks. The exact personnel of this group would of course also provide an insight into how Theresa May intends on handling the politics of Brexit, but membership should be based on the power to make decisions, not political balance.

This group would need to meet frequently and be kept up to date with the minutiae of negotiations. That means having a secretariat from DExEU, who is able to extract and process the necessary information and analysis from across Whitehall to tight deadlines.

Both Cabinet and the Cabinet Committee will continue to be involved in the negotiations, receiving intermittent briefings and providing a broader steer to their trajectory. The Prime Minister will need to ensure that Cabinet members are sufficiently involved to feel bound by their collective responsibility for the Government’s approach.

But the day-to-day decision making process at the top of government requires a smaller group if it wants to be able to respond with speed; Theresa May needs to move soon to establish her Brexit ‘war Cabinet’.


Hi Oliver, a good blog and an interesting recommendation. It's logical to think that smaller groups are more agile in decision making. And you're right, I think, that most War Cabinets are smaller than 12 members. I wonder, though, that if, as you highlight, the EU Exit and Trade Committee has a balanced composition of ministers, then any smaller, standing committee would perforce reflect a similar polarity. If so, then you wouldn't necessarily achieve increased agility through shrinkage, unless the principle of balance were also relinquished. If balance were to be relinquished, then a committee of 12, now with a uniform outlook, might be as agile as you need it to be. There probably is an inescapable size-issue that constrains swift agreement, but the more significant issue is probably spectrum of opinion, and how you address it, which is separate from the constraints simply imposed by unwieldy size, especially when committees don't need to meet in order to decide (i.e. write-rounds), and can convene ad hoc, smaller groups when necessary. There's also an argument that less uniformity can be healthy, less because diversity stimulates speed of decision, because it probably wouldn't, than because it helps to air and resolve latent disagreements between ministers and/or departments, and hopefully results in better quality decisions. This outcome would probably be worth some delay in many cases, although admittedly not in all cases, which is where ad hoc groups would come in. So, on balance, I think there's room for a plausibly effective 'fudge' option between your recommendation and the current committee as it exists on paper.

On Today in Parliament tonight - Friday 31st - Bernard Donoughue argues that the Prime Minister needs to appoint a Herbert Morrison figure to ringmaster the Brexit legislation the way Morrison ran the Attlee Government's 5-year legislative programme, coordinating the Whitehall and Commons phases of the process.