Hannah White / Oct 2016
Last Thursday the Institute for Government published a report calling on Theresa May to set out how she intends her government to reach a negotiating position on Brexit. This week at the Conservative Party Conference she finally broke her silence.
The fact the PM has begun to talk about the route towards Brexit is welcome. But the only real news among the various pronouncements this week has been the confirmation that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March 2017. The announcement that the Government plans to bring forward a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to remove the European Communities Act 1972 from the statute book while ‘grandfathering’ all the EU law made and applicable under the Act was - to those who had considered the legislative implications of Brexit – a necessary piece of legal administration to ensure continuity, rather than a bold policy announcement.
We need to know more about how the Government plans to reach a negotiating position
We now know something about the ‘when’ of Brexit, but the Government has yet to provide any detail on ‘how’ it will decide its negotiating position or ‘what’ it might look for from the final deal. In the absence of a clear plan, ‘Kremlinology’ continues to fill the void – with the outside world trying to divine the Government’s position from the elliptical statements of individual ministers. At least the speeches made by Brexit ministers at conference were not immediately refuted by Number 10 - as was the previous pattern. Nonetheless an unhelpful degree of uncertainty remains - frustrating those looking for an early exit, perplexing those with whom we have to negotiate, and unsettling those looking to do business with the UK.
In her conference speech the Prime Minister reiterated her statement that she will not be providing a “running commentary” on Brexit negotiations; undoubtedly there will be aspects of the content of negotiations which need to remain confidential until they are agreed. But in the short term, Theresa May needs – at the very least – to clarify the process and timescales through which she intends her government to agree the UK’s initial negotiating position. This will need to involve both effective external engagement – not traditionally a strength of the UK Civil Service – and strong internal coordination, to ensure that her government develops, and sticks to, agreed positions.
Ministers need to be clear on how they intend to engage beyond Whitehall
Brexit will affect every sector of the economy and every part of the country. Formulating a UK position depends on understanding those impacts. The Government needs to undertake a massive engagement exercise with other levels of government and affected sectors of the economy – their views need to feed into government deliberations. That process needs to be set out clearly so that people know how and when they can expect to be consulted. The current ad hoc approach to engagement risks confusion, duplication and some constituencies falling through the gaps.
Whitehall must offer ministers its best shared analysis of the options they have – to provide a robust basis for the political choices they will need to make
The three Brexit ministers entered office with strong political convictions about what Brexit should look like. The Prime Minister will have her own views. Every member of the Cabinet will be weighing up the Brexit they would like to see against the Brexit they think can be agreed – in the Cabinet, in Parliament, in the country, and with the EU.
The role of the Civil Service is to provide ministers with the evidence and analysis they need to make well-informed choices on the public’s behalf. The positions the Government takes must be based on the best shared analysis across Whitehall – not the lowest common denominator approach that all too often emerges from the Cabinet Committee process. The new Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) needs to take charge of that work – as they have begun to do.
Ministers will be faced with a series of difficult choices over the shape of Brexit - now with a firm deadline attached. How they go about making those choices is a question too important to be left to the interdepartmental wrangling and horse-trading often characteristic of Whitehall. The Prime Minister needs rapidly to clarify how she intends her Government to go about making choices on Brexit.