Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
At the end of last year, the Prime Minister achieved ‘sufficient progress’ in the Brexit negotiations, allowing her to start talking about trade and future UK-EU relations. But, despite this milestone, at the start of the week the Daily Telegraph suggested that she planned to appoint a Cabinet minister for ‘No Deal’, alongside the Brexit Secretary. So far, no such appointment has been made but, if it is, what would it mean for Brexit, for David Davis’s role, and for the UK’s chance of leaving without a deal?
In and of itself, a new ‘No Deal’ Cabinet post wouldn’t change much. Irrespective of the appointment, the chance of Brexit without any sort of deal is very small, especially after ‘sufficient progress’. Of course, it’s possible that the UK could leave with only a limited, bare bones agreement. Indeed, it’s likely that the Prime Minister won’t get a full trade deal with the EU during the Article 50 period, even if she does manage to agree heads of terms. But the acceptance last month, by both sides, of a standstill transition doubtless smooths the UK’s path out.
A No Deal minister might have been helpful over the last few months. Then, the position could have helped demonstrate to Brussels that we were making serious plans for a no deal. Leaving with no deal should be nobody’s first choice. But planning for no deal – and being seen to do so – makes a deal more likely. Now, such an appointment risks looking crass.
There’s little substantive point in having ministers of state attending Cabinet, when their department already has a secretary of state. Yet successive prime ministers have chosen to allow some extra ministers to attend for various reasons, including presentational factors and political balance. Towards the end of his time in office, David Cameron sought to improve the gender ratio around the coffin-shaped table. Theresa May has just given ministers in the Home Office and BEIS the privilege of attending Cabinet, as well as of course the Chief Secretary. But extra Cabinet positions risk muddling the chain of authority inside departments. If there’s to be a minister for No Deal around the Cabinet table – or as was even suggested, yesterday, a minister for deal and no deal – would David Davis still be in overall charge of Brexit planning?
Meanwhile, despite the progress in negotiations, senior Labour figures used the Christmas break to attack the Government’s Brexit policy and tried to re-open (again) the overall question of leaving the EU.
In late December, Lord Adonis resigned from his chairmanship of the National Infrastructure Commission, alleging that Whitehall was suffering a ‘nervous breakdown’ over Brexit. Then, early in the new year, Tony Blair put out a compendium entitled Brexit – what we now know. Both Adonis and Blair took to the airwaves advocating that Brexit should be abandoned.
Brexit planning is actually quite advanced in Whitehall (although some departments have much more to do than others). It’s hard to recognise Adonis’s claim that he does not “know a single senior civil servant who thinks that Brexit is the right policy”. I know some who backed Brexit in the referendum, and many more who have come around to it since.
Adonis asserted that morale in the Civil Service is in free fall. In fact, November’s Civil Service Survey showed staff engagement was up two per cent since 2016, to its highest level since 2009. Adonis suggested that the Department for Exiting the EU couldn’t attract staff, but figures show it growing by a fifth in a three-month period last year. He claims that “no mandarin backs May”, but the vast majority of officials whom I’ve spoken with, at all levels of seniority across many departments, accept the referendum result.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I heard stories of officials in tears and a physical fight in a department. It was certainly a profound mistake to allow Whitehall to be so visibly aligned with one side of a political question. Yet now most officials seem to agree that if we are to leave the EU, we must also quit the Single Market and Customs Union. Although I’ve heard plenty of (private) criticisms of various aspects of Brexit policy or of its delivery, there’s little sense of a wholesale disagreement. It is true that some officials – particularly those in the Treasury, BEIS and Olly Robbin’s team – are keen to keep as much as possible the same. But it’s not fair to say that Whitehall is experiencing any sort of nervous collapse.
Bizarrely, Adonis’s resignation letter says he would have quit “anyway” (despite Brexit?) given the extent of his disagreement with the Government over its approach to the East Coast rail franchise.
Blair’s document also unwinds on inspection. It mendaciously elides the distinction between things that caused by Brexit, and things which have happened since Brexit. To take a small example, the document references a jump in butter prices by 22.5 per cent. Yet in November, the Financial Times noted butter’s “price in countries from the US to Australia has been climbing for much of the year”, while in October Germany’s Deutsche Welle reported a jump in prices across Europe and of 60 per cent in France.
On the Today Programme, Blair was presented with positive predictions for future UK economic growth. He replied: “you can look at the predictions or you can look at the current facts”. Blair then (seemingly without realising it) went on to refer to a prediction himself, saying “the truth is that economic growth is down from what it would have been.”
In the midst of the reshuffle yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party. According to Sky‘s Tamara Cohen, he told the group that “when people voted to leave the EU they voted to leave the Single Market”. And, somewhat inaccurately, that “Single Market membership requires us to be members of the EU”. The Government will probably continue to suffer defeats in the Commons and (even more probably) in the House of Lords, but unless Corbyn changes his view on the fundamentals of Brexit, there’s little reason so far to doubt that the UK will be out of the EU by April 2019.