Brexit exposed civil servants to unprecedented personal and political pressures - by Jill Rutter

This article dated 20th February 2021 by Jill Rutter, for the UK in Changing Europe, looks at the impact of Brexit on the Civil Service. Here are some of the extracts from a nine page article which we have uploaded below in doc format so as to preserve the many links to supporting evidence:


The post-Brexit balance sheet


So has the civil service survived the ‘existential threat’ from Brexit?

It is bigger. It has attracted new blood. And it can take pride in the fact that it has supported a Government to get the sort of Brexit it wanted. Even if many will say that the negotiations could have been handled better, both under May and Johnson, it is clearly now the politicians who own the outcome. Down the line, ministers may complain that they were not warned of unexpected consequences, but the fact that David Frost personified the exit negotiations means he will be held responsible for that. Ministers, for their part, can take comfort from confounding Whitehall gloomsters like Sir Ivan Rogers, who warned it could take 10 years to do a free trade deal with the EU.


“So has the civil service survived the ‘existential threat’ from Brexit? It is bigger. It has attracted new blood. And it can take pride in the fact that it has supported a Government to get the sort of Brexit it wanted.”


The next big challenge from Brexit is to see what the UK can do with its new found powers. Much of the day-to-day task of making Brexit work will fall not to Whitehall but to the arm’s length bodies who have taken over many of the responsibilities formerly exercised by the Commission. The government has signed up to give new powers to quangos – the Competition and Markets Authority and the Office for Environmental Protection among them.


There is a tricky relationship with these semi-independent bodies to manage if they are to have enough credibility to do their job convincingly. But there are also new policies to be made, and made work, in areas where Whitehall has not had policy discretion and associated expertise for decades. Defra made an almighty hash of implementing CAP reform (a reform it had advocated) in the 2000s, ending up paying a stream of fines to Brussels: will it be able to manage the radically different agricultural support scheme?


There are question marks too over trade policy. The Department for International Trade can be quietly satisfied that it has succeeded in rolling over so many of the trade agreements it inherited from our years as an EU member. But can it deliver to ministers’ expectations, not least when they still seem unwilling to engage with the very real trade-offs and choices they need to make to have a convincing trade policy?


Conclusion


The civil service rose to the challenge of Brexit, particularly once ministers finally made clear what they thought Brexit meant. The additional challenge of Covid-19 exposed weaknesses – as well as some surprising strengths – though only a full-blown public inquiry will make clear how blame should be apportioned between ministers and their civil and public servants. But Brexit and the handling of Covid-19 both showed up areas that would benefit from reform, as well as new ways of working that need to be sustained. Ministers may, for example, be keen to draw lessons from the success of the vaccine task force and see whether that model can be applied elsewhere.


As the UK heads into a future outside the EU, the civil service will be keen to show that it can help ministers as they take back control and show the Governments of the EU that the UK can indeed make policy better alone. Ministers, in turn, need to show that after a bruising period, they can work effectively with their civil servants. They also need to reassure, by actions as well as words, that they still value a non-partisan civil service – or initiate a public debate on the alternative.

Article by Jill Rutter for UK in a Chang
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