Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
Hardball. That seems to be the Brexit strategy coming out of Downing Street since Boris Johnson’s arrival on Wednesday afternoon. It is full speed ahead on No Deal preparations. The new Government still maintains it wants to reach an agreement but is demanding Brussels drops the backstop before a new deal could be agreed. There is no sign of a retreat from the 31st October hard deadline.
The arrival of the Vote Leave supremo Dominic Cummings has sent a very loud signal – this administration means business. If there wasn’t a clear Brexit plan for Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, one is being hammered out right now. And alongside it an overall programme of domestic reforms, some of which were previewed on Thursday in the Commons as the new Prime Minister’s “golden age”.
It’s being suggested that under Johnson and Cummings, Downing Street has been put on full election footing. Perhaps. (Anyway, it’s no secret that the Conservatives’ grip on power could evaporate at any point, so preparing for an election would be prudent).
But more fundamentally Downing Street is showing signs that it’s going to treat politics and governing as a continual campaign. That’s perfectly sensible. Many of the problems Theresa May faced since the 2017 election resulted from her seeming inability to persuade people to get behind what she was doing.
Away from the public-facing side of Government, Cummings is one of only a few political advisers who understands the importance of, and is truly committed to, reforming the Whitehall machine. I worked with another, Simone (now Baroness) Finn, in the Cabinet Office between 2012 and 2015.
As special advisers to Francis Maude (then the Minister for the Cabinet Office), Finn and I helped design and push forward a programme of Whitehall reform. It wasn’t about moving away from the Northcote–Trevelyan system of a non-political civil service, it was about making the machine work more effectively. At the time the big challenge was austerity – could you save money and yet provide better public services? Now the challenge is Brexit.
Although Maude’s reforms had the support of many civil servants, we faced strong internal resistance. We made some progress, but things stalled when Maude was moved to the post of Trade Minister and were further unwound once Theresa May took over. Bafflingly, steps to strengthen the teams around ministers were reversed in late 2016.
You sometimes hear that with the demands of Brexit, there’s no capacity for other reforms or to look at ‘plumbing’ issues. But Whitehall reform should not be seen as an optional add-on or a nice to have extra. It’s crucial to delivering an effective Brexit and to making the most of the opportunities that leaving the EU presents. Nick Herbert’s think tank GovernUp have produced some strong ideas for how the new Prime Minister should reform the system. They should be required reading for the new Downing Street team.
Delivering Brexit in fewer than 100 days is the ultimate challenge for Johnson if he is not to become the third successive Prime Minister to be forced from office by the Europe problem. Johnson insists that he favours a deal but without what he describes as the “anti-democratic” backstop. For the EU’s part, Brussels has only offered to shift the non-binding parts of the Brexit deal – the Political Declaration. It’s hard to see that washing either with the new administration or with MPs.
The first phone call with the outgoing European Commission President on Thursday afternoon ended with a mutual exchange of mobile numbers but little progress on Brexit. Jean-Claude Juncker insisted that the withdrawal agreement is the “best and only” agreement possible. The new Prime Minister quite reasonably argued that the deal in its current form stood no chance of passing the Commons. For now, it’s a stalemate.
Brussels left a hint of some wiggle room, particularly if the European Council chose to revise the guidelines which dictate what the Commission’s negotiating team can and cannot do. But the leaders of European Governments aren’t expected to meet until late October – just a fortnight before Britain’s departure is scheduled. So far they are all sticking rigidly to their formula that there’s no possible deal without a backstop.
Unsurprisingly Brussels is already ramping up the blame game, accusing Johnson of bombast and bullying. Some analysts suggest he is planning a snap election; others that he is deliberately making impossible demands so as to have little choice but to deliver the No Deal which they believe he wants anyway.
European capitals typically ignore the irony of the current Brexit impasse. They don’t acknowledge the absurdity that Ireland could face a potential hard border on 31st October precisely because of a failure to agree an insurance policy to stop the border becoming hard at some point in the future.
Across Europe, there’s a general sense of exasperation with Britain and Brexit. (We are also quite familiar with Brexit fatigue here in the UK!) But at the same time, I’ve also heard some diplomats and senior advisers tell me privately that they recognise that things can’t go on exactly as they are. They understand that a deal can only work if it can pass the Commons and the current deal has no chance of doing that.
Where does all that take us? We are left facing the exact same choices that we have all the way through – a deal, no deal, or no Brexit. But the difference seems to be now that, despite all the difficulties, the Number 10 machine and Whitehall will be pressed to do whatever it takes to prepare for a possible No Deal.
After all, No Deal remains the legal default for which four-fifths of MPs voted back in 2017 when they endorsed the triggering of Article 50. No Deal could well mean significant disruption, only some of which can be mitigated through unilateral actions. It’s important to be honest about that. But it’s also the case that the medium-term economic impacts of No Deal have been over-stated by critics.
If there is to be a No Deal, the Government will need to do everything possible to prepare Whitehall and businesses to reduce disruption. But they should also look at far wider tax, regulatory and legislative changes to make the best of the situation. Open Europe will have more recommendations in our No Deal Action Plan, out soon.