There was only ever going to be one lead Brexit negotiator – and that was always going to be the Prime Minister, as David Davis confirmed yesterday. That was one reason why we argued against the creation of a dedicated Brexit department back in July 2016.
Having a Secretary of State and Prime Minister with different views on the approach to the negotiations was always a recipe for tension. And as we learned from Davis’s letter, those differences were many.
If it was difficult to run the withdrawal phase from the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) – with only three big issues on the table – it will be impossible to run the second phase from a department headed by the most junior member of the Cabinet, the new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab.
When we move to phase two of the negotiations, big and differing departmental interests will come into play. Trade-offs will need to be made. DExEU was seen to have its own agenda in terms of the type of Brexit to be pursued. Therefore, the rest of Whitehall did not regard it as an honest broker in phase one – and will not be able to play that role in phase two. Better from the start to plan for the negotiations to be supported directly from the Cabinet Office.
The other departments that might put in a bid are the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Trade (DIT), the latter as a compensation prize for a Chequers plan which reduces the scope for flamboyant new deals with the US or Australia.
But the UK’s future economic partnership will be a balancing act between competing domestic interests, and the FCO is not equipped to decide the relative balance of advantage between, say, fish and audio-visual services. DIT is developing trade expertise but its leadership has firmly aligned itself with those who want to minimise commitments to the EU and maximise opportunities elsewhere. As David Davis himself said, the lead negotiator needs to believe in the plan, not be the departmental beneficiary of its failure.
The Prime Minister is said to have planned her reshuffle in advance – so we can assume she is not regretting the quick announcement of a new Brexit secretary. To add a big machinery of government change into the mix yesterday would have made the current confusion even worse.
But there are other reasons for DEXEU to hang on. First, there is still a substantial legislative task. Secondary instruments still need to come through under DExEU’s Withdrawal Act. And, down the line, DExEU will lead on the legislation in the autumn to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. That could have all moved to David Lidington in the Cabinet Office. But wherever it sits, it is a big task and cajoling the bill through will tie ministers up for a considerable time.
The second and bigger task is coordinating planning for all the multiple Brexit scenarios that are still in play. That includes preparation for “no deals” of varying degrees of acrimony. The Policy and Delivery Coordination team in DExEU has 150 people overseeing arrays of Gantt charts, showing achieved and projected progress, in closed rooms. Those plans need to be stress-tested to make sure they add up.
Even more important is the need for a cross-government exercise to warn businesses and citizens of the preparations they need to make. Two weeks ago, the National Audit Office gave an amber-green rating to the new Customs Declaration Service – but noted that HMRC had still not warned any of the 145,000 traders who trade only with the EU that they might need to start making customs declarations on 30 March 2019. The communication effort needs to move into overdrive.
We argued in Preparing Brexit that a minister should be made responsible for Brexit readiness. If DExEU’s negotiating function is moved to the Cabinet Office, Raab would take this position by default. Where David Davis was always more focused on the negotiations, Raab’s role would be to oversee Brexit legislation and implementation alone. Even if no ‘Senior Responsible Owner’ of preparedness is formally appointed, having a Cabinet minister with this focus would be a step in the right direction.
Raab must also put an end to the secrecy over Brexit planning in Whitehall. Jeremy Hunt, now the Foreign Secretary, warned that threats to the Prime Minister’s plans could lead to Brexit paralysis. But Cabinet splits have meant that, to the outside world, the Government’s Brexit preparations have been shrouded in secrecy. Now that the current Cabinet is agreed on a postition, Raab's first demand should be that secrecy over preparations must end.
There was always a risk that DExEU would depart with its first secretary of state. It has survived that existential threat. But as Brexit becomes business as usual, the Government should be planning its demise. And the sooner it makes those plans clear, the more certainty it can give to its staff and the less time and effort mandarins and ministers will spend on an energy-sapping battle over DExEU’s corpse.