The British Union Flag, also known as the Union Jack, is displayed on wall Turf wars by ministers seeking to control the Brexit negotiations are wasting valuable time and may cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds in additional civil servants, a report by the respected Institute for Government claims.
In the first detailed examination of how Whitehall is being restructured to cope with the Brexit talks, the report says the cost is approaching £65m, largely due to the need to hire 500 extra civil servants.
It adds that the triple departmental structure of splitting responsibility “risks creating fragmentation and incoherence. A lack of clarity about roles and responsibility of the new departments has caused distractions and delayed work on Brexit”.
The report, called Planning Brexit, says that “while Whitehall is building the machinery to respond to Brexit, politicians don’t yet know what to do with it – or if they do, they aren’t saying”.
Authors Hannah White and Jill Rutter argued that the prime minister had planned to oversee the Brexit talks through a beefed up Cabinet Office but No 10 instead chose to split the responsibility between the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox.
The report says: “There is a gaping void in the government negotiating strategy” and urges ministers “to move swiftly to spell out [the government’s] plan for reaching a negotiating position – even if it doesn’t want to give away its hand”.
It calls for a clearer structure whereby industry and politicians, including the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, are consulted on the negotiations. It says Whitehall’s engagement with outside interests so far has been haphazard and prone to duplication.
It adds: “At the very least, Theresa May needs to clarify the process and timescales though which she intends her government to reach its initial negotiating position” and warns that “in the absence of a clear plan, Kremlinology and off the cuff remarks are filling the void”.
The current position of the outside world trying to divine the government’s position from the musing of individual ministers is creating unhelpful uncertainty, frustrating those looking for an early exit, perplexing those with whom we have to negotiate and unsettling those looking to do business with the UK, says the report.
The growing assumption in European capitals is that May is determined to deliver on a pledge to bring UK borders back under control; as a result, UK access to the EU single market will be limited. British diplomats are still at the foothills of trying to discern thinking in the main capitals of Europe and some of this intelligence gathering is hampered by the imminence of elections in France and Germany next year.
Numerous foreign leaders have suggested they expect the UK to trigger article 50, kickstarting the two-year long talks process, early in January. It is expected the talks will be finished before the next round of European parliamentary elections.
May has felt forced to slap down all three of her Brexit ministers for giving away aspects of their personal thinking about whether Britain will opt for a hard Brexit.
She is seeking to prevent next week’s Tory conference in Birmingham being dominated by Brexit by trying to have the discussions on the issue limited to the first day of conference.
White said: Silence is not a strategy. The prime minister has sworn she will not give a running commentary on negotiations but she needs rapidly to clarify how and when the government intends to go about making decisions on Brexit.
Rutter said: Ministers will be faced with a series of difficult choices over the shape of Brexit. These are too important to be left to normal interdepartmental wrangling and horse-trading. Overall the task of negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU is immense and the work involved will occupy Whitehall and Westminster for least a decade.