The past year has not been a good advertisement for government. Nor has the past 24 hours. Walking into meetings in Washington, the opening gambit was: “Whose government is more dysfunctional?”
We’re glad that the US President and Capitol Hill are agreed that it is worth having a federal government, at least for another three weeks. The UK continues to spin out the paralysis that has the world fascinated and horrified. In voting to send the Prime Minister back to Brussels to ask for something that Brussels has repeatedly rejected, the House of Commons may well have made “no deal” more likely.
Meanwhile, just so we don’t forget, Northern Ireland has now not had a government for two years and three weeks – long ago passing the world record. In all the talk about the border, not enough is made of the seriousness of this, I think – political divisions so deep that they have already brought government to a halt.
Brexit has been a catastrophe of government.
The UK is not ready for no deal. The disruption from no deal – simply from the lack of preparation – would be extremely damaging. It cannot be dismissed as a mere blip.
This is before you consider the economic hit that most models predict.
– The Government has still not spelled out some of the most important measures it would take – for instance, what tariffs it would charge on imports from the EU or whether it would waive them.
– None of the 40-odd EU trade agreements to which the UK would lose access has been “rolled over”, although there are a few agreements in principle.
– The Government needs to pass at least five more Bills while 500 out of the necessary 600 Statutory Instruments are still outstanding.
– The UK needs to set up replacements for the work done by the EU. To pick just one, creating a licence for European banks to keep trading in the UK.
– Businesses will need to fill out new customs declarations, change labels on food and get health checks for animal product exports.
– Civil Service preparation for no deal has been in fits and starts, slowing down when negotiations were going well (when a transition was agreed in principle in March) and ramping up again when they became stuck.
The EU has offered some cushions against disruption, particularly on flights and financial services. But as John Manzoni, chief executive of the Civil Service, said last week: “We won’t be completely prepared for no deal.”
Why is the UK in such a predicament?
It was not inevitable, even if these political divisions on Europe go back decades. The Government must bear a lot of responsibility.
That starts with its early declaration of Article 50 and setting of red lines, without considering whether they might make a majority in Parliament impossible. It persisted with that position even when it lost its majority in the 2017 general election. It pursued a position the EU had ruled out, that is, retaining the benefits of EU membership while leaving the EU, failing to understand that the EU saw Brexit as a threat to its survival.
There was also a failure to appreciate the importance of the Irish border question until late in the day.
For its part, the civil service has taken tremendous steps in preparing for Brexit. It has had to plan for several versions of the future at once.
The civil service has hired 20,000 people since the referendum, reversing one in five job cuts of recent years. It’s put 10,000 of those to work on Brexit, with perhaps 5,000 more to come.
But there will be questions with hindsight about how the civil service advised the PM and ministers.
The first is not understanding the EU well enough. There has been a real loss of European expertise over the years – diplomats who knew what other European capitals were thinking. Some of that is due to the paring away of the Foreign Office budget and its role in Whitehall. The Iraq and Afghan wars contributed, I think, by diverting attention from Europe.
The second question is whether, far from saying No, Prime Minister, senior officials indulged Theresa May too much in pursuit of what it’s now fashionable to call “unicorns”. For instance, the notion that technology not yet designed could easily solve the Irish border problem. That unicorn started prancing all over Parliament Square again on Tuesday night.
If you put this to senior civil servants, they do offer a riposte. They say, for one: “we did advise the prime minister not to trigger Article 50 at that point.” They clearly have a case that she was trying bridge deep political divisions and they were trying to find solutions. But the results are still regrettable. One civil servant said to me: “We really didn’t think there was a solution to coming out of the customs union without border checks. But we were under a lot of pressure to give one. So we finally did something, really on the back of a fag packet and sent it over. Tell me – just tell me – how that became Plan A.”
Brexit and Parliament
Brexit has been good for Parliament. It’s become better at holding government to account, something that in general we support.
That is, though, after a weak start. Parliament passed the Article 50 bill without asking enough questions, accepting Theresa May’s position that her red lines set the parameters of a deal. MPs must share the blame for the failure to have arguments over the destination Brexit early enough.
Parliament has now made up for that, to the point where there are concerns that it is ripping up convention and will make the UK ungovernable.
You might add to these the convention that the Government would resign if losing a vote on its main policy, or that MPs would observe a three line whip.
Let me pick one from the list that is causing much concern in Whitehall now. The Government and senior officials have been rattled by Labour’s use of the antique device of a “humble address” to extract legal advice. The Government is worried it now has no recourse, as it does under statutes such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Records Act, to protect it from having to publish legal advice or notes of private meetings.
The Government is right to worry about that at the moment. But this wouldn’t be a useful tool against a government with a majority. That is one example of how we shouldn’t worry too much about the apparent fluidity of convention. Much of it stems from the highly unusual circumstances of the moment: a minority government, whose own party is divided on the subject of the day, supported by a small party whose identity rests on the single most contentious aspect of the issue, while the Opposition is also divided.
We should instead welcome much of the growing strength of Parliament, which predates Brexit. The 2010 change to let MPs elect committee chairs, who were previously picked by whips, strengthened the committees.
But the inability of government and Parliament to deal with anything but Brexit comes at huge cost. Since the 2017 general election, not counting reshuffles, 22 ministers have resigned from government, six from the Department for Exiting the EU, eight of them Cabinet ministers.
That on its own has disrupted the normal running of government. We did at least get, if late, the immigration white paper and the NHS reform plan. But important work on the funding of local government and of the police – both under strain – has been held up. So has work on social housing – and the spending review due to begin now is slipping later. So, I should say, has work on devolution – and Brexit has badly strained the agreements on how that works and the relationships with Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
These delays are a real cost.
This article is extracted from the annual IFG lecture given by Bronwen Maddox on Wednesday. The full text, covering public finances and the culture of government, is available at instituteforgovernment.org.uk