Friday 30 September 2016

Institute of Government: silence is not strategy

The Institute for Government have produced a damning report on the progress made by the government so far on Brexit.  Tellingly sub-titled ‘silence is not a strategy’ the report points to the incoherent administrative machinery being created, with turf wars between the different Brexit ministries. It also shows the initial costs involved in staffing these ministries, which they estimate at £65M a year – but that is just the first instalment on what will undoubtedly be an extremely hefty bill in the coming years. The scale of the demands upon the civil service and its inability to cope with them, partly because of the cutbacks of recent years, is becoming ever clearer.

There remains no clarity in what the government is seeking to achieve with respect to Brexit, and the latest coded comments of Brexit ministers like Liam Fox make very little sense, not least because of the continuing confusions over what key terms – single market, customs union, WTO trading rules and so on – actually mean. Europe leaders are bemused at this ignorance, as shown by their disdainful reaction to Boris Johnson’s comments that the link between the single market and free movement of people is “baloney”, and seem now to believe that a hard Brexit is inevitable. Leaders aside, in the last couple of weeks I’ve talked to Bulgarian, French, Danish and Norwegian people all of whom are completely mystified, confirming the observation that many are making that the UK is becoming a “laughing stock”.

For Theresa May, the politics of this are immensely complicated even if it were clear what she wants to achieve. The core difficulty is the same one that led to the referendum in the first place and which it was meant to resolve: the split between fanatical anti-Europeans and if not fanatical then at least pragmatic pro-Europeans within her own party. That has not simply reappeared as a hard versus soft Brexit split. However, in this incarnation, it cannot be addressed as party management matter since whatever decision is taken will ineluctably determine the long-term future of the UK as well as having immediate consequences. The lesson from her predecessor must surely be that the anti-EU faction cannot be appeased in any way: nothing other than full, hard, early Brexit will satisfy them.

But if that happens there are now very severe warnings of massive job losses in the financial sector, and ever louder noises coming from the car industry, care industry, academia and other sectors that the results will be – and are already beginning to be - catastrophic. For Brexiters, no doubt, this is just ‘Project Fear mark 2’, but the (what one hopes are) serious-minded civil servants working on the plans can hardly react in so cavalier a fashion. Nor, presumably, can the Prime Minister.

So if she, herself, is seeking a soft or softish Brexit then she now has almost no room for manoeuvre, except perhaps to hope that delay will lead to an implosion of the Brexit wing of her party, and especially of its ministers in government. If that is so, then silence is indeed a strategy, although for how much longer it can hold is questionable. Alternatively, if she is willing to accept (or, even, wants) hard Brexit then it is difficult to see why she does not simply come out and announce that: the pain of it will not be reduced by waiting. However, if that is her position it becomes incomprehensible why she would have set up an administrative machinery with the flaws so clearly dissected by the Institute for Government.

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