May and Johnson failed to protect civil servants from Brexit-related attacks, says think tank

By on 18/05/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Whitehall sources have heavily criticised former PM Theresa May’s refusal to defend civil servants who were attacked over their involvement in delivering Brexit. (Image courtesy: Arno Mikkor, EU2017EE/flickr).

UK PMs Theresa May and Boris Johnson failed to defend civil servants whose impartiality was called into question during the Brexit upheaval of the last four years, an investigation has found.

According to a report by UK think tank the Institute for Government, former PM May allowed Olly Robbins, her chief Brexit negotiator, to become a target for political attacks by Brexit supporters who believed that he was undermining government policy. And current PM 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 report, The civil service after Brexit – lessons from the Article 50 period, is based on interviews with unnamed Whitehall sources including officials, ministers and special advisers. Some of them heavily criticised May’s relationship with the civil service. They told the IfG she did not offer any “significant protection” to Robbins after he was attacked by Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs, who accused him of being secretive, of orchestrating an anti-Brexit “establishment plot”, and of having a “Rasputinesque hold” over his boss.

“The prime minister was notably silent: she offered no support to her key adviser, who was taking personal and professional attacks as a result of her policy decisions,” the report notes.

It also touches on May’s decision to allow her spokesperson to dismiss analysis by then head of HMRC Jon Thompson as “speculation”. Thompson had said that May’s “maximum facilitation” border proposals would cost businesses up to £20bn (US$24.3bn) a year – analysis for which he received death threats from Brexiteers.   

The report says that Johnson also failed to defend civil servants who came under attack, most notably the UK’s then ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, when diplomatic emails about Donald Trump’s administration were leaked. In this instance, May expressed support for Darroch but Johnson, who was the frontrunner for the Tory party leadership at the time, did not comment. Darroch soon had to resign.  

Fundamental tensions

More broadly, the IfG report finds that the task of delivering Brexit in an environment where the Cabinet and Parliament were both severely divided exposed weaknesses in the civil service. For example, 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,” it says.

However, there have also been positive outcomes. For example, the report notes that no-deal preparations saw the introduction of faster decision-making overall, the rapid relocation of large numbers of officials onto priority projects, and closer working relationships with the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The “immense scale of the Brexit task drove innovations that should help the government response to the coronavirus pandemic,” it says.

It warns that the civil service could yet be forced to prepare for the possibility of a no-trade deal Brexit ahead of the 31 December 2020 deadline, and that “the problems of the last four years will resurface unless lessons are learnt”.

Maddy Thimont Jack, senior researcher at the IfG and one of the report’s authors, told The Guardian: “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.”

Going forward, the paper recommends that departments invest time and resources in their relationships with the devolved governments; that government works more closely with business ahead of the end of the transition period; and that the civil service should continue to support the mental health and morale of officials – many of whom are known to have suffered from severe stress and exhaustion while working on Brexit-related projects – as the government combines continuing work on Brexit with addressing the coronavirus crisis.  

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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