If Theresa May is to make a success of Brexit, she needs to cover a lot of ground over the next five months. Much of this work will necessarily take place behind closed doors. From the outside, we do not expect to see details of the UK’s negotiating position, priorities, and identified areas of leverage. But other aspects of preparing for negotiations will take place in the public domain; there are 13 tasks where we do expect to be able to identify government’s progress. Of these, six have been completed. A lengthy to-do list remains.
To understand the implications of Brexit, civil servants in the new Department for Exiting the EU (and indeed across Whitehall) must engage business, local government and civil society. Conversations are happening, but on an ad-hoc basis. This haphazard process means the Government could end up relying on relationships with ‘usual suspects’, failing to examine issues that cut across departmental boundaries and missing key information.
Government needs to develop and share its strategy for engaging beyond Whitehall. The Government also needs to be about open the cost of staffing the new departments, and the impact on other policy areas which staff have left in order to work on Brexit preparations. It has committed to refreshing Single Departmental Plans to cover the knock-on effects of Brexit on other policy areas. Some major decisions have already been delayed – we can surely expect further slippages or cancellations. We still know little about how Whitehall will deal with the Brexit challenge, so there remains a real risk that the UK will begin those negotiations inadequately prepared.
The Government needs to clarify the role of MPs in approving the UK’s negotiating position. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, has promised that MPs will not be ‘at a disadvantage’ compared to MEPs in terms of access to information once the talks are underway. The next step is to set out what that promise means – we have a few suggestions. Parliament will have to agree the final deal, so the Government needs to know what it will sign up to before entering negotiations.
Set up a process for working with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to meet with the three devolved First Ministers and commit to finding ‘a UK approach and objectives’. We know that talks between the four nations of the UK will take place in a new committee. The Governments should also agree how each will be involved at crucial stages of the Brexit process, such as agreeing the final deal. These words should be followed up with action: for example, publication of agreed principles for co-operation, including what issues are on the table and how disputes between the four nations will be resolved. Failure to do this now risks seriously damaging relations between the four governments.