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IFG - Brexit strains have exposed the constitutional vulnerability of the civil service

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”, says a new Institute for Government paper.

Published last week, The Civil Service after Brexit: Lessons from Article 50 says that both Theresa May and Boris Johnson failed to defend the civil service when MPs and commentators questioned its impartiality.

The paper 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.

Maddy Thimont Jack, senior researcher at the Institute for Government said:

“Brexit demonstrated the very best of the civil service. It managed to unpick a 47-year relationship with the EU in less than three years, working under immense pressure and to extremely tight timelines. But the task is still not complete and the tensions that Brexit exposed – particularly, between ministers and officials – have not necessarily gone away. Responding to coronavirus on top of preparing for the end of transition will place yet more pressure on the civil service – and will likely make it more urgent than ever to address the failings which have been exposed since the triggering of Article 50.”

Notes to editors

  1. Full report is attached and can be found here: 
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact / 0785 031 3791.

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