This site has only once given its comment slot, first thing in the morning, to a single writer for a whole working week. We did so during the summer for Charlie Elphicke’s “Ready on Day One” for Brexit series. Our reason was that the biggest electoral test for the Government as we leave the EU – an event only 18 months away – will not be the outcome of the talks, but whether life continues more or less as usual afterwards.
Whether the UK trades tariff-free with the EU, say, will have little immediate impact on voters. Whether they can catch flights to Ibiza or Marbella, or goods and products can get into the country and onto shop shelves, or lorries can travel as usual on the M20 into Dover, is a very different matter. They won’t notice whether there is a hard or soft Brexit. But they will – and in spades – if there isn’t a frictionless one, to borrow the jargon.
Think back to the fuel crisis of 2000, when lorries staged go-slows, oil refineries were blocked, bus companies cut back services, forecourt staff tried to ration petrol, panic buying broke out in supermarkets, and emergency distribution powers were sanctioned. Then ask yourself not whether worse will happen in 2019, but whether it could. And if so, what Ministers are doing to ensure that it doesn’t?
Part of the answer is that guaranteeing a smooth Brexit isn’t altogether in their power. The legal arrangements that will govern aircraft landing slots, or importing parts for nuclear reactors, or the workings of the banking system, will flow from an agreement between the UK and the EU – which can’t be delivered from one side of the table only.
But there is action that the Government must take whether there is such an agreement or not. And others are now exploring some of the questions that Elphicke raised. Over at Newsnight, Chris Cook asks whether there will be sufficient space in ports, enough customs officers and computer systems that work – and on time.
And at the Daily Telegraph, Allister Heath argues that DEXU isn’t up to the job of overseeing the necessary preparations, and that Theresa May should move the whole operation to Downing Street, and take personal charge of it herself – abandoning much of the rest of government. Parts of his piece mirror the case being put on Twitter by Dominic Cummings (of Vote Leave fame).
So how is government planning for the practicalities? If one believes that Brexit is the greatest national task since the Second World War – as it is – one looks to find a small group of Ministers who are the equivalent of Churchill’s War Cabinet. The nearest equivalent is the Cabinet sub-committee on EU Exit and Trade (negotiations).
This is one of a four-part structure of Cabinet committees and sub-committees dealing with Brexit, and has five members only: Theresa May, David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Boris Johnson. Bits of its proceedings have leaked (for example, over how to handle immigration post-Brexit).
DEXU is then tasked with ensuring that implementation happens. There is a twin problem with this structure. First, Whitehall tends only to act when Downing Street is on its back, straining every effort to drive measures through. No department has anything like the same status. Second, Davis must necessarily focus much of his energy on the negotiations.
Add the stresses and strains of setting up a new department from scratch, and one sees why Elphicke and others are so concerned. Perhaps it would have been better for Number Ten to take full charge at the start. But here one rubs up against the instincts of Theresa May and her Number Ten teams, past and present.
The received wisdom in Downing Street is that she and her government must not be “defined by Brexit” because, although there is still a majority for it, voters remain focused on the bread-and-butter issues that affect them and their families: living standards, public services, jobs – and so on.
It is useless to protest that Brexit will shape the future of all these, and that its effects are already being felt, for good and ill. Number Ten and Ministers will answer that it is no use telling people what they don’t want to hear. They have a point. Less than six months ago, the Prime Minister went to the polls for a Brexit mandate…but those day-to-day issues had at least as decisive an effect on the result.
May is determined to give those “burning injustices” much of her attention, and until or unless she decides otherwise DEXU is in the lead. There are signs of change. Ollie Robbins’ move from DEXU, where he was Permanent Secretary, to the Cabinet Office has been read as a sign of Downing Street “taking back control”.
Less attention has been paid to some of the work going on below the radar, such as the joint efforts that HMRC and the Home Office are now putting in on future migration management. Furthermore, ConservativeHome understands that some announcements on Brexit readiness have been held over until after the Prime Minister’s speech in Florence tomorrow.
None the less, structural and political problems endure. Until or unless the Government can provide more evidence that it will be Ready on Day One, we should not assume that it will be – rather the reverse. And unless or until this happens, our EU interlocuters will assume that May doesn’t mean it when she says that no deal is better than a bad deal.
The DEXU Select Committee should be all over these issues like the proverbial rash. So should other select committees who have a big interest, especially the Treasury and Home Office ones. The DEXU website avoids naming a Minister responsible under Davis for dealing with implementation (which will help to stave off those awkward written and oral Parliamentary questions).
But Downing Street will not be able to postpone decisions and announcements for much longer. The logic of setting up DEXU, and of the Prime Minister’s reluctance to abandon the rest of government in order to focus on Brexit, is to put another Minister from the department explicitly in charge of implementation.
Here May runs up against a problem of her own making. DEXU has no Commons Minister of State, as a consequence of the foolish sacking of David Jones. The under-secretaries are Steve Baker and Robin Walker. Putting one of them in charge of implementation would make that person a political target. And he would not have sufficent seniority to cut through Whitehall.
The best available compromise, given the self-imposed political constraints, would for one of Baker or Walker to be bigged up as a Minister of State, working jointly in the Cabinet Office with Damian Green, who heads it up. He and Davis are old political allies, so this would be manageable. Crossing one’s fingers and hoping to be saved by a transition is not an alternative, or shouldn’t be.