30th April 2017
The UK prime minister Theresa May often uses the phrase “getting on with the job” in respect of her government’s approach to Brexit.
This in turn is part of her supposed “strong and stable” leadership.
Rhetoric, of course, is one thing.
But there are at least three ways in which May’s government has not got on with the job with Brexit and wasted precious time instead.
First, back in July, whilst the EU cracked on with practically preparing for Brexit, May lost crucial time starting two (competing) Whitehall departments from scratch.
(My three-part detailed and source-based series at the FT on the EU’s preparations for Brexit is here, here, and here.)
The two new departments (of International Trade and for Exiting the European Union) are still not (in April 2017) up to speed.
There are reports of turf wars with each other, and both with the Foreign Office, Treasury and UKREP (the UK in Brussels).
There is even still uncertainty as to who is UK’s counterpart to Michel Barnier. (Is it May, Davis, Robbins, UKREP?)
Back in July, the then Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin gave evidence to a commons select committee on early preparations for Brexit.
How we laughed at his talk of fine-grained, multi-dimensional options papers – but at least something was being done straight away.
The former prime minister had refused to allow the civil service to properly prepare for one outcome – “leave” – of a binary referendum. The UK was always going to be far behind, at least to begin with.
It was critical that the UK civil service caught up as rapidly as possible.
But instead of letting the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office (and UKREP) get on with the job, May wasted limited time and resources – at this crucial early stage – with disruptive re-organisational tinkering in Whitehall.
By Autumn, the EU were already lapping the UK before the UK was properly getting started.
Second, there was the Miller litigation.
Instead of putting an Article 50 bill through parliament to put the government’s ability to make the notification on a statutory basis, May insisted that the government fight the case both in the High Court and the Supreme Court.
In the end, the government lost twice and had to put through a bill anyway.
This litigation diverted limited time and expertise in the government (especially in the government legal service) in the early few months.
There was never any good reason to fight this case. The referendum legislation did not make the result binding at law (even if it were binding politically).
The government could have just got on with the job instead of wasting time in the courts.
And, it must be remembered, May was lucky in the Supreme Court – it was possible that the judgment could have meant that there would have to be formal involvement of the devolved powers, thus creating more delay.
As there was always was a majority in parliament for the appropriate legislation, the court case was a needless, expensive and high-risk diversion.
The third self-inflicted delay is the most damaging.
On 29 March 2017, May made the Article 50 notification, triggering a two year period for negotiating an exit agreement.
Although this two year period can be extended by unanimity, there is no reason to believe this will happen. Barnier is on record as saying that he wants to get the deal done in two years.
Every month – indeed every week – is now important.
But May has called a needless general election.
This means that negotiations cannot formally start until June 2017. May has therefore lost the UK significant time at the start of the negotiation process.
And what makes this particularly unfortunate is that the EU is already well-prepared.
In the UK. however, minister will be electioneering, not preparing; and the “purdah” limits what civil servants can and cannot do.
There could be no worse time for a general election, and its attendant effects on policy and decision making.
Again and again, under the cloak of “getting on with job” rhetoric, May has diverted and frittered.
May handicapped the civil service before it could get going; the government legal department before it could get going; and now the Brexit exit agreement talks before they could get going.
All for the reason, it seems, of domestic political consumption.
And this is in addition to other obvious missteps: appointing Johnson and Fox, losing Rogers at UKREP, not being able to carry the Scottish Government (in contrast to Donald Tusk keeping the EU27 united, May can’t even keep the home nations on board), and so on.
May boasted of not showing cards and giving “no running commentary” and then she loudly (and needlessly) shows her cards ruling out membership of the single market and the customs union, and rejecting absolutely any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
To contrive bargaining tokens, her government is now reduced to threatening security and intelligence co-operation, and even to try to block the departure of EU agencies from the UK.
Whatever all this can be called, it is not “strong and stable leadership and “getting on with the job” – even if people who should know better nod-along with such rhetoric.
Getting on with the job is what, in fact, the EU are doing.
By keeping EU27 together in respect of consistent and strict Brexit objectives is what Tusk, Barnier and others are (so far) doing, and this can be fairly called strong and stable leadership.
The UK are instead wasting time, when there is no time to waste.
I have no objection to Brexit in principle: this post is not an exercise in remoaning. The UK can be successful outside the EU.
But if a post-Brexit UK is going to be a success, the current approach of May and her government does not bode well.
My book “Brexit What Everyone Needs to Know” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
This post is an elaboration of this thread on Twitter.