Former senior civil servant says Whitehall has not made enough progress on plans to leave the EU.
LONDON — Government departments across Whitehall need to supercharge their efforts if Britain is to be ready to disentangle itself from Brussels within Theresa May’s timeframe, a former senior civil servant said Wednesday.
The capacity of Britain’s central government bureaucracy to handle the task of separating Britain from Brussels has come under scrutiny in recent days, amid claims that departments are thinly stretched and there is no coherent plan.
On Tuesday, the Times provoked a furious response from Downing Street with a front page report claiming Whitehall was overwhelmed by the task of Brexit and could require 30,000 new staff to handle Britain’s departure from the EU. The article was based on a memo by the consultants Deloitte, which Number 10 dismissed as “unsolicited” and “nothing to do with the government.”
On Wednesday, the Times followed with another front page story saying Brexit posed an “existential threat” to some Whitehall operations and that the prime minister’s approach was “secretive,” “chaotic” and “dysfunctional.” That article was based on a paper by the Institute for Government, a think tank.
Those claims were backed up Wednesday by Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, who said the chaos described in the Times was “perfectly plausible.”
“If we are going to have a coherent position going into negotiations in about three months’ time then the afterburners need to be put on” — Sir Simon Fraser
Appearing before the first public sitting of the House of Commons’ new Exiting the European Union committee, Sir Simon Fraser, who ran the U.K.’s foreign office until July 2015, said “not enough” progress had been made across the government to prepare for the vastly complicated process of withdrawing from the European Union.
“More needs to happen, and time is relatively short. If we are going to have a coherent position going into negotiations in about three months’ time then the afterburners need to be put on,” Fraser said.
Heather White, head of research at the Institute for Government, told the Commons Brexit committee Wednesday that the Times’ latest article had partly misreported the think tank’s comments: It did not claim there was an existential threat from Brexit, only quoted one of its sources as saying so.
However, White said the think tank was concerned the government had not been transparent enough about its thinking in the run-up to triggering Article 50, which will begin the formal process of withdrawing Britain from the EU.
The prime minister shouldn’t have to give a full “blow-by-blow account” of her Brexit negotiating strategy, White said, but it would be helpful to know more about the process the government intends to follow and its broad objectives heading into discussions with Europe.
“We think the degree of secrecy there … is unhelpful,” White said. “If there was more clarity about that, it would give reassurance to external stakeholders, to companies and so on, who at the moment… feel that they’re talking to lots of people in government but they don’t know how what they’re saying is contributing to thinking. They feel like they’re having to repeat the message on different occasions. They don’t understand the process.”
Catherine Barnard, a professor of European Union law at Cambridge University, told the committee that disentangling Britain from Brussels will be a “gargantuan” exercise legally and administratively.
Both agreed some sort of transitional arrangement will have to be put in place.
Former deputy prime minister Clegg said Wednesday that the Deloitte memo was “a perfectly plausible description of the Whitehall I knew.”
Speaking at a briefing on the future of freedom of movement, Clegg, now Brexit spokesman for the Liberal Democrat party, said May’s failure to set out a clear “endpoint” for the government’s work on Brexit was to blame for unleashing chaos in the civil service.
“If you let Whitehall go on a complex problem and don’t set tram lines from the top, that is what Whitehall will do,” he said.
Clegg, who was a cabinet colleague of May’s for five years in the coalition government, said he expected the prime minister was unwilling to reveal the government’s Brexit negotiating position because she did not have one.
“I don’t want to over-personalize this but my experience of working with Theresa May, that’s the way she works,” he said.
“She hoovers up huge volumes of briefing and commissions more and more and more briefing, possibly in the hope that somewhere, maybe at 2 a.m. … annex D of some briefing produced by the government will suddenly reveal a shimmering diamond of wisdom the resolves all of her problems.”
On the question of freedom of movement, Clegg said the government was facing a “ferociously complicated” administrative task if it wanted to guarantee the rights of the more than three million EU citizens currently living in the U.K.
The government has not confirmed whether it will allow EU citizens in the U.K. to stay, but is widely expected to do so in return for securing the rights of U.K. citizens living in the EU.
However, Clegg said that this would create a two-tier immigration system for EU citizens — one for those who had been previously resident and one for those who had not. This would require the government to somehow register more than three million people — an arduous task that could stretch the Home Office’s capabilities, Clegg said.
In a briefing paper, he states: “The Home Office will need to process lengthy forms, assorted evidence and legal challenges for upwards of three million people. There is no population register, and no reliable record of who is in the country and any particular time.”
May on Wednesday hit back at EU leaders’ mounting criticism of her position on Brexit, implying that to reveal her negotiating stance would allow them to undermine her.
Confronted by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over comments from Italy’s economic development minister, who criticized the “chaos” surrounding London’s position, May said that showing her hand now would result in “the worst result for this country.”
“Of course those in the European Union who we will be negotiating with will want us to set out, at this stage, every detail of our negotiating strategy,” May told the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions Wednesday. “If we were to do that it would be the best possible way of ensuring that we got the worst result for this country. That’s why we won’t do it.”
Italian minister Carlo Calenda said Tuesday EU leaders did not know what May’s position was. “It’s all becoming an internal U.K. debate, which is not OK,” he told Bloomberg, adding that the British government needed to “sit down, put its cards on the table and negotiate.”
Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem increased pressure on May Tuesday, telling the BBC’s Newsnight program that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s assertion that Britain would “probably” leave the customs union, while still trading freely with EU countries, was “intellectually impossible.” Such an option “doesn’t exist” he said.
Asked to confirm at PMQs whether the U.K. would remain in the customs union, May said that membership was “not a binary choice.”
There has been speculation that the U.K. may be seeking different rules for different sectors of industry, such as cars and aviation. Asked whether the government would seek a sectoral approach, May’s official spokesperson told POLITICO there were “many aspects” to the customs union.
“As the prime minister said it’s right that therefore we work through the detail on all this as part of preparing for the negotiations,” the spokesperson said.
“There are many aspects. There are things such as the tariff, there is the paperwork and bureaucracy, there are rules about rules of origin.”