With the UK celebrating a record-breaking medal tally in the Rio 2016 Olympics, it would be remiss of us not to make an analogy to it in our Brexit blog: the Government will want to channel this summer's sporting success as it assembles its own world-class team of civil servants and trade negotiators to take on the herculean balancing act that is Brexit. How is Brexit Team GB, or rather UK, coming along?
Theresa May has said Brexit means Brexit, and has promised to make a success of it. This means red lines will need to be drawn up for negotiations when they begin, after Article 50 has been invoked. But at the beginning of the process and right the way up until the end, the key will be balance. Priorities are complex and run across all sectors and the UK’s bilateral and multilateral relationships around the world. But they also run across commercial best practice and the electorate’s political appetite. Chatham House has said it will be exceedingly difficult to distil the diverse and sometime divergent views of the British people into a model of Brexit that can be negotiated with the EU.
But before these difficult policy areas can be addressed, the government is busy filling roles at the newly-created Department for Exiting the EU (DEEU) and other relevant departments. Some staff have transferred from others areas of the civil service with policy responsibility for the EU, including Cabinet Office and the FCO. Other posts are proving difficult to fill. One official quoted in the Huffington Post described the positions as “the hardest job in British politics since the end of empire. It’s a job demanding world class negotiation skills, world class trade knowledge, and world class analysis of EU law.” He also pointed out that considering the workload, not many would agree to take the job at the rate of civil servant salary. Part of the problem, says a government source, are the “horrific hours” these jobs are expected to involve. Another source says that plans to plug gaps from the private sector will put civil servants off, as they don’t want to be “surrounded by people from Accenture doing the same job on five grand a day”. And the biggest problem recruiters will battle, say civil servants, is that “the whole of the civil service is massively disappointed about Brexit” – generally, those in the civil service who want to work in areas of EU policy, “want to work on the EU because they love the EU”.
Nevertheless, just under two months after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the team of civil servants who will spearhead Brexit is beginning to take shape - the new team was announced just last week, on 12 August 2016. David Davis’s Department has so far made only 110 of its 250 planned hires, while Liam Fox’s has fewer than 100 of the 500-plus negotiators it is seeking. Article 50 has not yet been invoked but that is not to say the clock is not ticking. There is a political impatience from those who voted to leave the EU and there is a commercial impatience as the current uncertainty puts deals on hold and creates a less certain environment for investment.
In the post-austerity era, the government’s capabilities are stretched as it is. The only way to move forward in a higher gear is for external consultants to add both brain and muscle to the existing intelligence and strength within the civil service. But unlike the stereotypes of armies of consultants recommending programmes and then delivering them at astronomical fees to the public purse, engagement on Brexit is different. Addressing the balance requires the political conscience of ministers together with the commercial understanding of the consultants. Marrying this together draws on the experience of public sector officials to ensure the passage of conflicting but equally valuable points into policy outputs.
This all comes about because of a desire to break away. But as the Olympics have reminded us, the best outcomes usually require a concerted effort to come together.