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The Brexit Threat

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If relations between Boris Johnson and Whitehall are today less than cordial, the friction stems from the fact that most civil servants believe Brexit was a mistake and are now approaching it in terms of damage limitation. AFP

The Brexit Threat

In terms of the equation between 10 Downing Street and Whitehall, governance in Britain has had a bumpy ride ever since the nation’s exit from the EU.

In the immediate perspective, this has been an adverse fallout of Brexit which wasn’t quite expected. If relations between Boris Johnson and Whitehall are today less than cordial, the friction stems from the fact that most civil servants believe Brexit was a mistake and are now approaching it in terms of damage limitation.

One can almost hear the rumblings of disapproval within. Johnson prefers those who visualise glorious opportunities in the UK’s separation from the EU. In the net, the attitude on both sides of the fence – 10 Downing Street and Whitehall – is a recipe for bad governance, indeed an unhealthy distraction from the task of governing in difficult times. Johnson has already lost the Chancellor of the Exchequer by demanding that the Treasury surrender its independence from No 10.

Sajid Javid resigned rather than tolerate the essay towards denuding an institution, indeed an entity that has historically been referred to as a powerhouse of experience in economic policy. Whether his successor, Rishi Sunak, puts up with it has yet to be seen. The suspicion of Whitehall is no less rooted in Downing Street’s defence of Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, over allegations of bullying. Predictably, the Prime Minister prefers to take his ally’s side in the face of rival accounts of what has happened.

Some Conservatives have accused Home Office officials of campaigning against their minister because of her political stance. Hence the inference that officials who say they have been bullied are lying and their motive is softness on immigration and crime. Prime Ministers tend to prefer cabinets that agree with them; equally does the government need departments to be run well. Johnson seems uninterested in balancing that equation. Brexit ought not to exist to effect a paradigm shift and make Britain what they call a “regulatory autarky” away from Europe.

There appears to be no room on board for people who are conscious of the risks. Since that is a function which the civil service traditionally performs, Johnson would rather the Brexit revolution transcends the established structures of government. More accurately, this is the matrix of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief adviser, whose belief in the archaism and inadequacy of a permanent civil service is well documented. In his reckoning, it lacks agility and imagination.

The nub of the argument is that a better system can be reached by jettisoning the system that is in place. The Johnson-Cummings doctrine denigrates the qualities of the civil service. Johnson’s cabal considers the civil service as inefficient at delivering their goals. They see breaking the apparatus of government as a goal in itself and its impartial staff as enemies to be crushed in order to coplete a revolution. Brexit threatens governance.



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