How the Tories’ new direction left government directionless, and other Brexit stories

By on 08/03/2021
David Lidington, front left, a former minister of state at the Cabinet Office, sits in front of then-prime minister Theresa May. Credit: Jessica Taylor/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Brexiteers have long accused civil servants of hampering the UK’s exit from the EU. But new interviews with leading Tory ministers and advisers paint a very different picture – one in which, despite the best efforts of officials, Tory leaders’ miscalculations and in-fighting stymie progress. Adam Branson reports

Ever since 2016, Brexit-supporting politicians and newspapers have accused civil servants of trying to slow or block the implementation of Brexit. But in a recent interview, a key member of former prime minister Theresa May’s cabinet says the real problem lay elsewhere: in Tory MPs’ inability to agree between themselves on the kind of Brexit they wanted to deliver.

Speaking in one of a series of interviews produced by research body UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE), David Lidington, who served successively as leader of the House of Commons, secretary of state for justice and finally minister of state at the Cabinet Office, was asked how well the civil service had served May’s government. “I’ve never sensed foot-dragging,” he replied. “I think that is a calumny. I think they’ve done their best to serve the government.”  

In fact, Lidington continued, any sense of inertia was the result of a lack of political direction and leadership. “I think there was intense frustration in the civil service at the politicians being unable to come up with a clear decision about the way forward,” he said. “I think that that was the thing – plus having then to try to work in tandem for ‘deal’ and ‘no deal’ contingency planning. But people have been, in the civil service, working incredibly hard.” 

He added: “So, no, I think the idea that there is some devious civil service plot to drop all this is absolute nonsense. In my experience, if officials are clear [on what ministers want] – and sometimes that does need a bit of repetition by the minister that something is seen by that minister as a priority – they will get on and do it. But if ministers are not clear about what it is that is a priority and needs to be done, then you can’t be surprised if the machine stutters a bit.” 

Giving their all

Civil servants were working so hard, apparently, that cabinet secretaries Jeremy Heywood and his successor Mark Sedwill were at times “very concerned” about the impact on the health and wellbeing of civil servants. “[They were concerned that], actually, there was a price to be paid in terms of people’s welfare and sanity because of what was being expected of them,” said Lidington. “Those who were working in [chief Brexit negotiator] Olly Robbins’ team, some of the others who were expected to turn around option papers overnight after a Cabinet meeting or after a European Council meeting and so on, they just were worked to the bone.” 

Former minister of state at the Cabinet Office, David Lidington. Credit: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office/Flickr

The interview with Lidington is part of a UKICE series with key individuals who had a ringside seat during the most tumultuous period in British politics for decades. Another recently released transcript covered a discussion with Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, who agreed that Robbins’ team worked extremely hard. “My view would be that the Europe Unit did an amazing job, and they definitely won the professional respect of the EU negotiating team that they were up against,” he said. “You could see that very clearly.”  

However, Barwell admitted that Robbins’ twin roles as chief negotiator and permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) proved awkward, as DExEU secretary of state David Davis found that his permanent secretary was working directly for the PM. “We never really got it right in terms of his relationship with the DExEU secretary, as well as the prime minister,” he said. “[Robbins] always saw himself as the prime minister’s Sherpa. Actually, I have quite a bit of sympathy with DD [David Davis], who found it very frustrating.” Robbins eventually moved over the PM’s office full time, while Philip Rycroft was brought in as DExEU permanent secretary.

Coming under fire

Barwell added that he felt sorry for Robbins at times due to the media attention he attracted. “I really felt for Olly, in terms of the degree of public attention he got, which I think was really uncomfortable for him, from a civil service background,” he said. “I got it a bit towards the end as well, but then I was a political advisor and I was a former minister and MP, so it was water off a duck’s back to me. It didn’t bother me, but I think for him it was much more difficult.” 

In addition, Barwell admitted that the focus on Brexit did distract attention from other important issues – and that he was sure some civil servants found that irksome. “There would definitely be a bit of frustration,” he said. “Those people who were working on policy areas that were nothing to do with Brexit would definitely say they got less of the prime minister’s time than they would be used to getting on their portfolios. So some people, I’m sure, would have found that frustrating.” 

However, Number 10 “worked well” during this period, Barwell said. “We had a good team. I had a very good relationship with Peter Hill, who was the [PM’s] principal private secretary during the time that I was there. I think you can look at some of the advances in domestic policy, in certain areas, with some pride, and the handling of things like [the war in] Syria and Salisbury [poison attacks, linked to Russia], I think, showed the Prime Minister and the wider system in a good light.” 

Poisonous cakeism

Other recent interviews in the UKICE series, however, made clear the dysfunction at the heart of the Conservative party during the Brexit negotiations – something that made the negotiating team’s job near impossible. David Gauke, successively chief secretary to HM Treasury, secretary of state for work and pensions and secretary of state for justice under May, said that the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexit-supporting Tory MPs never genuinely wanted a ‘no deal’ scenario, as often reported; rather, they wanted to have their cake and eat it.  

David Gauke, successively chief secretary to HM Treasury, secretary of state for work and pensions and secretary of state for justice. Credit: UK in Japan – FCO/Flickr

“What the likes of the ERG wanted was something that they were never going to get,” said Gauke. “They basically wanted complete freedom and flexibility and no constraints, and maintaining exactly the same access to EU markets. They genuinely thought that they could get that because they [EU member states] want to sell us their cars and prosecco, so we can have whatever we like. I think that’s what they genuinely thought. So, I don’t think there was a group that were always wanting no deal.” 

However, those unrealistic expectations effectively tied the UK’s negotiating team’s hands, making it virtually impossible for May to secure a deal that could command a majority in the House of Commons. “What it did mean is that when you started to face up to the realities and you said, ‘These are the concessions that we need to make’, you had lots of people who said, ‘Hold on, hold on, that’s a bad deal, that’s not what I consider to be a good deal’,” said Gauke. “The definition of good deal became completely unrealistic and anything that fell below that was something that was unacceptable to agree to and no deal was an acceptable alternative.” 

The Tories’ one-way journey

The dominance of the ERG and the subsequent purging of more pro-EU MPs by Boris Johnson’s regime has pushed the Tory party towards a more right-wing and populist agenda. Gauke was asked whether he felt that move has changed the party irrevocably.  

“It certainly can swing back, [but] I think the probability is that it won’t swing back,” he replied. “I think that’s partly driven by the demographics. I think there is a section of society, if you like, that has traditionally voted left on economic grounds but is now more likely to vote right on cultural grounds. We’ve seen that, not just in the UK but obviously in the US and elsewhere as well. I think the Conservative Party, probably triggered by Brexit, seized that opportunity.” 

And having gone down that route and attracted a new section of the electorate, Gauke said that he fears a route back to a more centrist stance is now very difficult. “If it were to turn into a more traditional pro-business, pragmatic, liberal conservative, socially liberal type of party, a David Cameron type of party, it would lose the support of a lot of those voters and a lot of those constituencies,” he said.  

“I think, once you start going down the route that the party has gone down, there’s quite a big cost to give up all of that. I think you have to keep, if you like, giving those voters what they want. That requires a very culturally conservative, more economically interventionist government than one I would be comfortable with. I think the more probable route is that we are going to see some kind of realignment of politics. That’s incredibly difficult to do in the first past the post [electoral] system.” 

However, a change in the electoral system could upset the current balance: “I think if we were ever to have some sort of electoral reform – and we’ll see where [Labour leader] Kier Starmer wants to go on that – then I think you would see the Conservative coalition break up very, very, quickly,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t happen, I think the probable route for electoral success – at least for the next few years – is as a pretty Brexity, tough on immigration, culturally conservative, tough on law and order, type of party. The electoral gravity moves them in that direction.” 

Hearing from the Speaker

In a separate interview with UKICE, John Bercow – the former Tory MP who, as Speaker of the House of Commons, consistently pushed for Parliamentary scrutiny of ministers’ Brexit plans – largely agreed that the change of direction in the party is likely to last a long time. “I’m not saying it’s permanent, but I’m not sure anything is forever,” he said. “If you ask me: do I think that the Conservative Party will shift back to a more sort of middle-of-the-road position soon? I don’t. I don’t think that will happen. I think they are absolutely obsessed with Brexit, it’s the thing they care about more than anything else.” 

Former Tory MP and Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Indeed, Bercow said that the Brexit saga has led the Conservatives in a far more reactionary, quasi-racist direction. “It does pain me to say this, because I think there are many very distinguished Conservatives, but I do think that, leaving aside Brexit, the Conservative Party is afflicted by quite a serious problem of Islamophobia,” he said. “There have been opinion polls on this that have shown that large numbers of members of the Conservative Party think that it would be a problem to have a Muslim prime minister. And that seems to me to be a pretty shocking view, but it is a view of a lot of Conservatives at the grassroots.” 

However, Bercow said that he if current chancellor Rishi Sunak were to take the leadership, the direction of travel for the party could change. “I don’t see the Conservative Party shifting away from its present position any time soon, with one caveat, which is rather a personal one really,” he said.  

“I could imagine the Conservative Party shifting somewhat if Rishi Sunak took over from Boris Johnson. I think Rishi is a pretty open-minded character and I could imagine potentially quite a lot of things changing if he became leader and prime minister. And I think his stock is currently high, and I think he’s in with a real chance of succeeding Boris Johnson. But at the moment, is Boris seriously vulnerable? I don’t think at the moment he is.” 

If you found this article interesting, please read our previous report on UKICE’s interviews with former UK chancellor Philip Hammond and former DExEU permanent secretary Philip Rycroft.

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