We are seasoned Whitehall watchers on my parliamentary committee. We will shortly produce another report into the governance and leadership of Britain’s civil service, which is a much criticised and misunderstood institution but one which will serve any government, if that government leads it effectively.
Many Brexit supporters seem to harbour a false notion: that the real reason the UK is still stuck in the EU is because the UK is in the grip of some Europhile deep state. There have been many former diplomats and permanent secretaries who have spoken out against Brexit. They have every right to speak their minds but this tendency does, unfortunately, reinforce the impression that our impartial civil service is anything but impartial on the question of Britain’s membership of the EU.
The UK’s Washington ambassador, Kim Darroch, who resigned last week, is an archetype of the pro-EU foreign policy establishment. He was Tony Blair’s Downing Street adviser on European affairs and Gordon Brown’s permanent representative to the EU. The furore around his leaked briefings about US President Donald Trump has reinforced the impression to some that the whole of the civil service has an agenda of its own. It may have a “house view”, but that is not the point.
The only reason the UK is still trapped in the EU is because of ministers, not the civil servants or the diplomats. Theresa May’s government could have done far more, with much more enthusiasm — and with more transparency — to prepare for leaving the EU on March 29, the scheduled Brexit date. In fact, both former and serving Brexit ministers regularly describe how preparations for leaving are shelved, unannounced and hidden, blocked by other ministers who prefer to spread fear about Brexit rather than reassurance. There was no legal impediment whatsoever to the UK leaving on March 29. Mrs May simply chose not to leave. There is, however, a lesson from all of this for the new Conservative leader and prime minister, entering No 10 for the first time later this month.
If the new prime minister wants to leave on October 31 “come what may”, as Boris Johnson does, then he will need to appoint fresh ministers to give the civil servants clear and united ministerial direction. British civil servants and diplomats, imbued with decades of pro-EU policy, found a ready audience for their risk averse advice in Mrs May and most of her advisers and fellow ministers. If the new PM is not to be derailed like his predecessor, then he must appoint Brexit enthusiasts to all the key ministerial and advisory roles.
They must be people who can defeat the orthodox arguments, and the fear, with better facts and legal arguments. They must bring in the alternative advice they need and be ready argue for the benefits and opportunities of sticking to the Brexit date on October 31, against advice from officials. Above all, they must act as one, with courage and boldness, to lead the whole machinery of government in a different direction. How about reappointing a pro-Brexit Northern Ireland secretary for a start? And let’s have a pro-Brexit chancellor.
When Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979, the Treasury, along with the vast majority of economists and much of industry, derided and sought to block her new monetarist economic policy. She did not confront the whole of the civil service, nor did she ever criticise officials in public. Even though she only had a minority of believers in her cabinet overall, she made sure that supporters of her policy, including her chancellor Geoffrey Howe and financial secretary Nigel Lawson, occupied the key roles. The head of the civil service was persuaded to promote officials who would support the new policy. She brought in fresh thinking in people like Terry Burns as economic adviser.
Over time, her policy become the new orthodoxy but this was achieved without ever questioning the principle of a permanent and impartial civil service, first established by the 1853 Northcote-Trevelyan settlement.
This is the kind of leadership the civil service needs now. It means harnessing the extraordinary resilience of our civil and diplomatic services as their strength, not as an obstacle to change. Leading such a dramatic shift in favour of Brexit in the machinery of government may mean confronting one or two officials directly, but that will be enough.
The greatest mistake for the new prime minister would be appoint a variety of late converts to his policy, as part of a superficial manoeuvre to “unite the Conservative party”. Any sense that there is not collective unity will leave Brexit policy all too susceptible to the risk-averse advice and briefings that would reopen the divisions and doubt which brought Mrs May’s premiership to an end.
It would also deny civil servants the kind of direction which they crave. It is in the institutional DNA of the civil service to serve the government of the day but it is essential that the new government ends the ambiguity about what it wants to do.
The writer is Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and Chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, but writing in his own capacity