Changes in the ‘machinery of government’ are usually accused of being little else than the proverbial rearranging of deckchairs. However, the appointment of three Brexit-facing ministers, David Davis as minister for ‘the Department for Exiting the European Union’, Liam Fox for international trade and Boris Johnson as foreign secretary has raised some interest beyond the personalities involved. The chosen arrangements suggest little appreciation for either the complexities of governing in an interdependent world or the dynamics of executive government.
One could envisage a three-pronged approach to the world of ‘Brexit means Brexit’. While the Minister for Brexit (David Davis) deals with the ongoing negotiations with the EU in order to achieve a hard-nosed divorce settlement, Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, could be seen as the 21st century equivalent of Captain Henry Morgan, marauding around the globe to whip up interest in business with Britain while also dealing with other global issues. He would be followed by the Minister of International Trade, Liam Fox, formalising trade deals.
Such a ménage-à-trois arrangement might work. The arrangement will generate positive newspaper headlines that suggest that the British government can bargain with the European Union whilst presenting itself as a global player. Such headlines might offer comfort to the electoral heartlands of Brexit. However, it might be the kind of comfort that the passengers and crew of the sinking Titanic experienced when listening to the orchestra’s final tune, allegedly ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.
Ménage-à-trois arrangements have a tendency to unravel in the face of the first iceberg. After all, different meanings of Brexit continue to exist. Dealing with the EU is not just a matter of three ministers and their departments, seeing as domestic portfolios will continue to have considerable exposure to all matters global and European.
One key concern is individual departments’ competencies. Tapping into an international talent pool of trade specialists will not come cheap. Questions as to the ultimate loyalty of such international trade negotiators have already been raised. It is also not clear what kind of negotiations the Ministry for International Trade is going to embark on – until EU membership has ended, the UK is not free to engage with other agreements. The sorting out of EU-UK trade issues vis-a-vis international and bilateral trade arrangements is likely to take much longer than two or three years. It is also not clear what these new trade deals are going to include in terms of substance. It is likely that UK and non-UK business will wish to trade on terms that do not require different standards to that required to trade with the EU. For example, will UK food inspectors take on the work that EU inspectors undertake to license non-EU food producers to import into the European market?
The question about competencies also applies to the ‘Ministry for Brexit’. Such a ministry can opt for two broad strategies. One is to rely on centralisation, thereby taking the lead on issues that are the core business of other Whitehall departments. This will lead to inevitable tension, if long-held policy preferences are seen to be negotiated away. Another way is to rely on coordination in which the Brexit ministry draws on the expertise of different departments. Again, such an approach will not come easy: competing priorities will make it difficult to plan ahead and maintain consistency as domestic departments will fight their own corner.
Furthermore, this Brexit ministry will be in the continued cross-fire of different interests. Businesses, universities, agricultural industries, and rural areas will demand continued access to the European market and its support mechanisms. Their demands fly in the face of political demands for restrictions on free movement of people. Other interests will demand special privileges that will be incompatible with international agreements and bilateral trade deals, let alone access to the European Single Market. Impatient Brexit campaigners will criticise the lack of pace. In short, the Ministry for Brexit will become not just a site for negotiation with the EU and co-ordination among UK departments. It is likely to become the blame magnet for all interests affected by or interested in Brexit.
Having a ‘Department for Exiting the European Union’ is not just about ‘exit’, but also about ‘entry’: if the UK seeks to enter some form of agreement with European Economic Area (EEA) member states, then part of the ministerial remit involves negotiations with the existing EEA member states. It is not clear why Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, or Norway should content themselves with worse arrangements with the EU than the UK. Iceland successfully negotiated specific clauses for landing strips in remote areas. One of the key tasks will be to establish what the UK’s equivalent of remote landing strips are going to be. It might also wish to send a delegation to Liechtenstein to discuss its provisions regarding migration.
The long-term consequences for Whitehall are also considerable. Changing the machinery of government is disruptive: different tribes of civil servants are shuffled around, emails and websites need to be re-set, and standard operating procedures require re-drafting. Tradition leads us to expect further re-arrangements as the UK navigates the icefields of Brexit and domestic policy pitfalls.
The Foreign Office is facing a further depletion of its resources and its staff. The example of Norway suggests that the creating a specialist unit for the EEA brought about a rapid increase of knowledge of the EEA. However, once that unit had been dismantled, no structural provisions were in place to maintain institutional policy memory in the fabric of the Norwegian civil service.
Moreover, there is also a question of ‘political time’. Brexit is going to occupy considerable attention and resources. Controlling migration will put further strain on the existing, barely coping administrative capacity. There will be little time for domestic priorities. Domestic firefighting and priorities will compete with the Brexit work in a system where morale is generally low after wage freezes, declining working conditions and considerable staff redundancies. The Brexit work constitutes, at least for some, severe strains on their understandings of loyal service to the government of the day.
Machinery of government changes do matter. They suggest that the UK government is ready to launch its journey to Brexit. The creation of a ménage-à-trois arrangement to manage Brexit is therefore important. The absence of an understanding of what Brexit actually means and therefore what the destination might be, and the lack of consideration for the departmental over- and underlaps that will emerge suggests little preparedness for the life of Brexit. As the sounds of ‘Ode to Joy’ fade in the distance, the future is less likely to be one of ‘Rule, Britannia’ than ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.
Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the LSE