We had a Department for Exiting the EU when Brexit was the all-consuming task of the UK government under Theresa May. That department has now been replaced by a team in No.10 running the negotiations in Task Force Europe, and by coordination in the Cabinet Office of the preparation and implementation of the withdrawal agreement.
Combatting coronavirus is now the overwhelming preoccupation in government.
While being interviewed on Radio Four’s Today programme, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College has suggested that, as the new Brexit, it too needs its own department, to coordinate the government response and give a heft to it which he thinks is lacking. Professor Ferguson is right on the need for effective coordination.
But he has learned the wrong lessons from the three and a half years of the Brexit department’s troubled existence.
Setting up DExEU was Theresa May’s first big mistake
Theresa May ran a very brief leadership campaign – but one commitment she did make was to establish a new department to lead EU exit. It may have seemed like a good idea at the time, though many warned it was not.
It allowed her to bring together the UK representation in Brussels and the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit, and then beef them up with a lot of redeployed civil servants and new recruits. More importantly it allowed her to offset her own questionable Brexit credentials by appointing a convinced Brexiteer to lead it.
But DExEU could only have worked if there was complete agreement between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. There were tensions from the start.
The Prime Minister may have created DExEU, but she wanted to retain control in her inner circle. The Secretary of State found himself increasingly excluded from the discussions May had with her advisers. As their views on the right path for Brexit diverged, the only question was when, not whether, Davis would resign.
But within Whitehall, DExEU suffered from being a coordinating department with a clear agenda, but without the power of the Treasury. Departments took their lead on Brexit preparations from their own Secretary of State – not from DExEU.
DExEU was never seen as an honest broker, but as a player with skin in the game. On no-deal preparations it could never force May’s divided Cabinet to make decisions and take on the Treasury.
It was only when Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister, and Michael Gove was put in charge of coordination in the Cabinet Office, that blockages were removed.
So the lesson of DExEU is the reverse of the one Ferguson drew: creating a department without the power or authority to coordinate is a distraction not a solution. And a ‘Secretary of State for Covid’ would immediately run into clashes with all the secretaries of state whose turf he or she was trampling on.
Machinery of government changes take time and effort – which we cannot afford now
Even if it would be a good idea in theory to have a new department, the middle of a crisis is not the time to create one.
It might be possible to get over the normal problems in the short run – for example of finding a building to bring new staff together and putting people onto the same payroll – when most people are already working virtually, but so-called ‘machinery of government’ changes always trigger rows over turf, over money and over people.
It’s a fair rule of thumb that they take at least a year before the changes start to bed down. In a crisis that may be accelerated, but time is at a premium at the moment.
The Prime Minister will inevitably make the big calls on Covid-19, so he needs the support to do this
The Cabinet Office has already beefed up its coordination arrangements.
There are daily meetings of the Covid-19 four – the ministers in charge of the implementation groups which are taking forward the four strands of the response – and regular meetings of COBRA, with the devolved administrations and others, to coordinate and communicate the emergency response.
The right answer is not to create a parallel set of new structures but to enhance these if necessary.
There are two key things government needs to do: make critical policy decisions and then ensure those policy decisions are translated into action.
On policy decisions, the government needs to make sure it can draw on the best analysis available on the impact of the crisis, and have direct frontline input on the feasibility of what it is doing. If it does not have enough resource to do that at the centre, it needs to bring it in – from departments or outside.
The science advice network is well established; the Treasury and business departments will be leading the economic analysis, but they may lack the direct delivery input into policy making. If so, they need to ensure they have that.
On Brexit, the government suffered for a long time because it was so reluctant to expose its indecision and share its plans with business.
The Prime Minister needs a grip unit
The area where the government seems to be falling down is in translating its promises into delivery – we have seen that on testing, on ventilator production and on converting its guidance on social distancing into guidance for police forces.
We have also seen it fail to get on top of the data – and the emerging crisis in social care. That calls for the sort of delivery capacity Tony Blair could call on in the heyday of the Barber Delivery Unit.
If the government hasn’t already created a ‘grip unit’ to get on top of implementation problems and sort them urgently, it should, bringing in people from inside and outside government. More importantly – to respond to Professor Ferguson’s point – it needs to be seen to be working.
By Jill Rutter, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe.