The civil service after Brexit: lessons from the Article 50 period

This latest report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at the challenges to the civil service caused by Brexit.

A divided cabinet and battles between parliament and the government revealed fundamental tensions in the civil service’s role and its duty to “serve the government of the day”. This report says that both Theresa May and Boris Johnson failed to defend the civil service when MPs and commentators questioned its impartiality. It says May allowed Olly Robbins, her chief Brexit negotiator, to become a target for political attacks over her controversial Brexit policy, while Johnson placed officials in an immensely difficult position by implying that he would break the law to take the UK out of the EU without a deal on 31 October 2019. The task of delivering Brexit also exposed weaknesses in the civil service. Senior officials failed to confront ministers with the implications of not making key decisions, and both ministers and officials refused to be upfront about the severe political and economic consequences no deal could have in Northern Ireland. The immense scale of the Brexit task also drove innovations that should help the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. No-deal preparations saw the introduction of faster decision making, the rapid relocation of large numbers of officials onto priority projects, and closer working relationships with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the civil service could yet be forced to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit ahead of the 31 December 2020 deadline and the problems of the last four years will resurface unless lessons are learnt.

The paper recommends that:

  • Departments invest time and resources in their relationships with the devolved governments
  • Government works more closely with business ahead of the end of the transition period
  • The civil service should continue to support the mental health and morale of officials, particularly as the government manages both the coronavirus response and Brexit this year.
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