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This week former senior civil servants laid aside their usual neutrality to attack Government Ministers. Their uncharacteristic outbursts were triggered by the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the British Ambassador to the European Union.
He quit because he found Ministers were unwilling to heed his warnings about the complexity of the negotiations to leave the EU and the time these might take. As our Ambassador he was aware of the thinking about these matters in the Brussels’ institutions and his counterparts from other member states. His feedback to Ministers was that there would be no quick fix and the negotiations could take ten years.
The ‘revolt’ was a reaction to the way pro-Brexit politicians reacted to Sir Ivan’s resignation. They inferred that like most Whitehall mandarins he did not want Brexit to succeed and his departure was welcome. Those mandarins hit back in a most unprecedented manner. A previous Ambassador to the EU praised Sir Ivan and suggested that Ministers had no real plan. Another said in a letter to the Times, “Too much of the debate about Brexit starts from a naïve view of how we would like the world – and Europe in particular – to be rather than how it actually is. Nowhere is this more evident than in our insistence that despite all the evidence to the contrary, we can have free trade in goods and services with Europe but not free movement of labour.” (Lord Kerslake; Times 5th January 2017).
The normal relationship between Ministers and civil servants is that the former decide on policy after taking advice on the options from their civil servants, who then carry out those policy decisions. The relationship is under strain partly because no planning took place before the referendum. Few expected that Brexit would be the outcome. The naivety to which Lord Kerslake refers is a further complication for rational policy making.
One example of this cropped up this week. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary and a campaigner for Brexit, assured famers that they would still be able to bring in EU nationals to carry out seasonal agricultural work after Brexit. The agricultural sector needs thousands of immigrants to pick fruit and other manual work. Next week the PM is expected to announce that stopping free movement of labour will be a red line in her negotiating plan and she is prepared to forgo membership of the single market but would like Britain to still have access to it. The problem is that this looks as if the UK wants the benefits of membership without the costs.
So what are the priorities in the UK’s negotiating strategy? Countries such as Norway and Switzerland have access to the single market but make a substantial financial contribution to the EU budget. Is the PM prepared to pay this? How long will it take to negotiate this and other aspects of a free trade agreement with the EU? Any member state could oppose a deal the PM proposes, as one did in relation to Canada’s proposed agreement with the EU? Presumably that was the realism behind Sir Ivan’s ten year timeframe. And how will Leadsom’s promise to the farming sector fit into the PM’s plan, not to mention the NHS need for migrant doctors and nurses? How, too, does the PM’s wish to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic sit in her negotiating plan. Then, where in her plan do the interests of the service sector sit? The service sector – banking, accounting, legal and the creative industries – constitute 78% of the UK economy. We have a £15 billion surplus in services with the EU.
Whatever one’s politics, the need to pray for clear thinking on these and many other questions is obvious, in the national not party interest.