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08 Mar 2021

Constitution and governance

On 24 June 2016, civil servants woke confronting their biggest challenge (at least until Covid-19 struck) since the second world war — the need to disentangle the UK from its 47-year membership of the EU and to establish a new relationship with it.

What is more, it faced the prospect of doing so with a new prime minister possessing what turned out to be a contested mandate as to what Brexit meant.

There were immediate changes: new departments created, Brexit teams established in all key departments; a handbrake turn in the civil service headcount reduction underway since 2010. Civil servants embarked on the triple task of supporting the Government as it negotiated with the EU, legislated to prepare for non-membership and built the machinery to operate after Brexit.

Taking back control — depending on the final shape of Brexit — meant developing new capacity to regulate and new capabilities, for example, to run an independent trade policy.

Where are we now?

Four and a half years on, the civil service is bigger, with some 30,000 Brexit-related jobs created. It has become more agile and delivered some significant successes — not least the EU Settled Status scheme, for which four million EU/EEA citizens have already registered.

However, it has been battered not just by four years of Brexit preparations, which involved trying to navigate through the hopelessly divided May cabinet, but also by juggling the competing demands of finalising Brexit and trying to deal with a global pandemic in 2020.

Either on its own would be a massive preoccupation. Departments moved Brexit staff to Covid-19 in March and then moved them back as they realised the Government was intent on ploughing on.

Meanwhile, the civil service has been battling a government led by Vote Leave veterans who have always liked to portray it as a bastion of Remain and in need of a serious overhaul. Individual relations at the top have frayed.

A record number of top officials have been moved aside, including the Cabinet Secretary. One is suing his former Secretary of State for unfair dismissal.

Where are we heading?

This year will mark the beginning of an extended test of the quality of those preparations, and civil servants will fear a blame game whenever the inevitable hiccups occur. The fallout of the summer exams fiasco has shown this to be a Government happy to pass the buck.

Civil servants, and public servants more widely, will start to operate new systems; new regulators will spring into life and the border will work, somehow. Meanwhile, the new trade policy profession will see if it can finally land some big new trade deals. For many civil servants, this should be a year of opportunities.

The departure of Dominic Cummings may change the style of the central operation but it is not clear whether it will change the agenda on civil service reform. The official version of civil service reform was set out in Michael Gove’s speech to Ditchley earlier in the year.

It rehearsed some well-worn diagnoses and its prescriptions were pretty standard too: more commercial, data and digital skills, greater emphasis on delivery, incentives for civil servants to stay longer in post to reduce churn, and more dispersion to the regions to reduce metropolitan bias.

His Cabinet Office colleague, Lord Agnew, has declared a war on consultants so civil servants can do more interesting work — despite the fact that Covid-19 and Brexit have both driven up dependence on consultants to record levels. If the Government can make these reforms happen, it should be uncontroversial and indeed welcome.

But the reform agenda does not stop there. The ‘hard rain’ Dominic Cummings threatened seems much more personal. Earlier in the year, newspapers were briefed that there was a ‘s**tlist’ of permanent secretaries, and three out of four of those named have been summarily despatched.

Sir Philip Rutnam resigning from the Home Office, and Sir Simon McDonald and Sir Mark Sedwill standing down, makes clear the Government no longer wants their services.

Intriguingly, the fourth name on that list,Treasury Permanent Secretary Sir Tom Scholar,seems to have rehabilitated himself through his department’s successful early response to Covid-19. He is now part of the triumvirate leading the civil service with new Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Chief Operating Officer Alex Chisholm.

And it is that new leadership that will now be facing its biggest test. Case was picked out of relative obscurity and even he admits that he lacks the experience of many of his predecessors. He needs to show ministers that the civil service is capable, not just of helping the country through Brexit but also helping them get on top of the pandemic.

The danger is that the willingness of ministers to dispense with the services of top mandarins has a chilling effect on the advice they are prepared to give.

Case also faces another big test. He needs to show the 400,000 civil servants he now leads that he is prepared to stand up to ministers when they push the limits of their powers. He will face increasing numbers of challenges over the way in which ministers are approaching ad hoc appointments and handing out contracts.

2021 will show whether there is real steam behind the Government’s civil service reform agenda and whether the civil service values of integrity, objectivity, honesty, impartiality can survive the promised onslaught.

And Whitehall will also have to put flesh on the Government’s levelling up and wider reform agenda, help the Government make a success of COP26 and set the UK on a path to net zero, and continue to try to manage relations with the devolved Governments.

All the while, the new UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement means that time and effort will need to be put into making new structures work, ensuring all levels of government understand their new obligations and help ministers understand how and how far they can exercise their regained powers.

The risk is that EU expertise — already a niche interest in Whitehall — will diminish further as the UK Government seeks to put the 47 years of UK membership behind it.

By Jill RutterSenior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe. This piece was taken from the Brexit and Beyond: government, law and external relations report, which is part of the Brexit and Beyond report.



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