The politics of personalities: how three bad behaviours shaped Brexit

By on 06/04/2021 | Updated on 07/04/2021
‘You sure about this?’ German premier Angela Merkel listens to May during the new UK PM’s first overseas visit in July 2016. Credit: Tom Evans/Number 10/Flickr

Analysis: Politics may be fought in the language of principles and philosophies, but personality often decides the victor. Digging through a new set of interviews on Britain’s Brexit journey, Matt Ross picks out three ill-judged behaviours that fatally undermined the efforts of political leaders

In the run-up to the June 2016 EU referendum, the Leave campaign pledged to return full sovereignty to the UK without weakening economic ties to the Continent. The UK would be part of “a European free trade zone from Iceland to the Russian border”, said Vote Leave, providing “tariff-free trade with minimal bureaucracy.”

Nearly five years on, UK exporters face multiple new obstacles – including customs declarations, work permit regimes and ‘rules of origin’ requirements. Services businesses have lost access to the permitting and mutual recognition systems that smooth trade across the Single Market, and the EU may impose tariffs if it believes the UK is evading ‘level playing field’ rules.

How did we end up here? Poring over the transcripts of interviews with many of the key players published by research group UK in a Changing Europe, over recent weeks GGF has published a series of Brexit analyses. The most recent set out three key inflection points in the UK’s Brexit journey: former PM David Cameron’s decision to call an in-out referendum, his flawed renegotiation strategy, and his successor Theresa May’s refusal to reach across the aisle to moderates on the opposition benches.

Here, we pull out another three pivotal factors – this time identifying personal behaviours that played an equally crucial role in deciding the UK’s Brexit landing place. Two of these concern the personalities, habits and instincts of May and her inner circle; the other those of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, whose votes propped up May’s minority administration from 2017.

One of the striking things about these transcripts is the degree to which people at the top of the Conservative Party felt forced by political pressures into making particular choices. And it is notable how few of those decisions worked out as hoped. The Brexit story is thick with miscalculations on all sides, as smart people operating in immense complexity made poor decisions. In the words of Denzil Davidson, whose decade as a special adviser culminated in three years advising May on Europe, “when you make mistakes, you often see what the factors are at the time, but you give the wrong weighting to the factors.”

Making decisions within a tight inner circle and focusing on short-term issues of political management, May’s team ended up making commitments that couldn’t be reconciled with their interest in protecting the UK’s integrity and economy. Determined to squeeze every possible advantage out of May’s dependence on DUP votes, Northern Ireland unionists reached too far – resulting in a loosening of the UK-wide union that lies at the heart of their identity. Had either group altered their behaviour, the Brexit story might have turned out much better for them.

One: shutting others out

Throughout her long tenure as home secretary, Theresa May had played her cards close to her chest: guarding the Home Office’s autonomy, she made key decisions privately with her advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. These behaviours grew still stronger when she became PM, appointing a cabinet that mixed former Remainers and convinced Brexiteers: this served a useful purpose in balancing the party’s competing factions, but rendered it almost useless as a forum for decision-making.

In the short term, this approach suited May and her inner circle who wanted to keep a tight grip on the policymaking reins. Chris Wilkins, a longstanding Conservative speechwriter and May’s director of strategy during her first year in office, recalls that Timothy was “probably the most prominent voice in the whole debate and decision-making process.” Other central and departmental figures were excluded, he adds, as Timothy consulted with veteran backbench Brexiteers: “There were a lot of informal advisers feeding into some of the decision-making processes, particularly some of the politicians in the Conservative Party like Bernard Jenkin, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith – people like this who I would quite often see trooping into meetings in Number 10 that I wasn’t a part of.”

Timothy’s influence set Brexit on a particular course, comments Denzil Davidson. “He [Timothy] had a very clear idea about what Brexit should be about, and it was that sovereign, legislative and regulatory autonomy were extremely important. And distance from the EU was fine,” said Davidson.

Number 10’s approach left little room for other departments or ministers to help shape the government’s course; certainly, the Department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) lacked serious clout or expertise. Its permanent secretary Olly Robbins spent much of his time on his dual role as May’s EU sherpa, and Brexit secretary David Davis was regularly sidelined or over-ruled by May’s team.

As Davis’s special adviser Raoul Ruparel recalls, when Davis and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier sat down for the beginning of formal talks after the 2017 election, “it became clear very quickly that a lot of the structure and format of the negotiations had been agreed already”: acting for May, Robbins had decided their sequencing and content with Barnier.

At May’s Chequers meeting, she tried – and failed – to sell her Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ to the divided cabinet. Credit: Tom Evans/Number 10/Flickr

At this point, DEXEU was still finding its feet. Established when May entered Number 10, it initially struggled to perform core functions such as generating answers to parliamentary questions, Ruparel reports. Departments need systems to “crunch through these things quite quickly, and none of that was there,” he says. “Every time you had to do something, it was just a nightmare.”

The department also lacked deep topical expertise. It had been formed at breakneck pace, with other departments “moving people that they couldn’t find homes for in their department into DEXEU. It sound harsh, but unfortunately that’s how it felt to me,” says Ruparel. “There were lots of brilliant people there as well” – but almost none of them had serious EU experience.

As the department’s permanent secretary has explained, EU experts were kept out of the top jobs to appease suspicious Brexiteers. Davidson comments that the problem was rooted in “a kind of ‘Sultan’s will’ thing”. He adds: “Much of the civil service was trying to second guess the Sultan’s will, and in this case they thought the Sultan was the Brexiteers who, they thought, don’t really like people who had been involved with the EU. So what we’ll do is choose people who have never had anything to do with the EU at all.”

As a result, DEXEU struggled to give well-founded advice – and anyway, Number 10 wasn’t listening. Joanna Penn, the PM’s deputy chief of staff 2016-19, acknowledges the problem. “You have a new prime minister, a new set of people in Number 10, navigating what that structure is like and how it should operate,” she comments. “You’re doing 12- or 13-hour days on all sorts of issues, not just Brexit, and you might not have the ability to lift your head up and know that there are people out there waiting for a call.”

This very narrow, closed policymaking process left Number 10 unsighted on some of the most important issues around Brexit – most obviously the significance of the Irish border. It wasn’t until spring 2017 that Davidson “really began to clock the extent of the problem,” he recalls. “We had a kind of collective failure in government at the time to properly understand the implications for Northern Ireland… Officialdom also fell collectively short.”

In Penn’s view, Number 10 had expected the border to become an issue in the trade talks, but hadn’t realised that the EU would insist on incorporating mechanisms to rule out a hard border into the exit deal: “What blindsided us a bit was the desire to have something quite concrete on Northern Ireland as part of the withdrawal process, not as part of the future relationship process,” she says.

Timothy and Hill “had a lot of power and they ran things in quite a controlling way,” says Ruparel. “But their biggest failing was that they didn’t actually do anything with that power – at least when it came to the biggest issue of the day, in Brexit. The nine months up to the triggering of Article 50 [which set the two-year clock ticking on the UK’s exit] was largely wasted in terms of actually preparing and getting ready.”

Two: boxing yourself in

But if May’s team weren’t privately preparing for the talks, they were publicly confining themselves within a set of highly constrictive ‘red lines’. Driven by issues around political positioning and party management, in late 2016 they began making commitments that would dramatically constrain their own freedom of manoeuvre on both timescales and landing places.

In the run-up to the 2016 Tory party conference, the decision was taken that “as a new prime minister, [May] needed to stand up on the Sunday and say something to the party and take ownership of the conference,” recalls Wilkins. “Having taken that decision, what’s she going to talk about? Well, she’s got to address Brexit… So you’ve got a tactical decision that then leads to this big moment with what became the big Brexit speech.”

Senior ministers were shocked when May laid down a set of ‘red lines’ that would require a distant relationship with the EU. By pledging to take control of the UK’s borders, money and laws, she effectively ruled out integration with the Single Market. And in promising to enact Article 50 by March 2017, she created a self-imposed deadline likely to favour the bigger player in the talks: because a no-deal exit would be so painful for the UK, the EU could set out its requirements and wait for May to fold. As previous UKICE interviews have revealed, then-chancellor Philip Hammond was “completely and utterly horrified”, concluding that May had not understood the significance of her comments.

But the speech was “not intended to be a big strategic moment,” explains Wilkins. “We were new in Number 10; we had this conference bearing down on us; we had to quickly get speeches together”. May worried that the party might revolt without an Article 50 timeline, he adds, and wanted to avoid participating in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections.

A senior DEXEU official did warn that the Article 50 notification date “was one of the key cards we held and we should not give this away,” says Wilkins. But when he suggested in a Number 10 meeting that the PM should avoid giving a timeline, “I probably lasted about 15 seconds before everybody else in the room – and this was civil servants as well as political advisers – just said: ‘That’s not a sustainable position. We can’t go beyond March because the prime minister will be basically torn apart’.”

Ultimately, says Ruparel, the conference speech “was very much written by Nick [Timothy], and the substance was not negotiable.” But the PM had empowered hard Brexiteers by committing herself to brokering a distant relationship with the EU, while giving her EU counterparts a powerful lever. She would spend the rest of her premiership trying – and failing – to finding a landing place acceptable to both sides.

Three: hubris in Northern Ireland

The UK agreed a Joint Report with the EU in December 2017, covering the key issues around the Northern Ireland border. But May didn’t set out a concrete plan for how to address them – apparently because her team feared that concessions with reality would prompt a backlash from Tory Brexiteers. As Davidson recalls, “officials felt that our politics would not have allowed us to put forward one that was even remotely realistic, and so it was better for the EU to lead the process – even if that was a bit embarrassing.”

The EU feared that, if a trade deal couldn’t be agreed before the UK left the bloc, a hard border would arise between Northern Ireland and the Republic – breaching the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and potentially reigniting conflict in the province. So its draft legal text explained that in these circumstances, Northern Ireland would effectively remain within the Customs Union and subject to many Single Market rules. As Ruparel recalls, the UK had lost the initiative: “We were then fighting just to change bits of their text.”

Arlene Foster (left), the DUP leader, rejected May’s backstop – but wound up with a settlement far more damaging to unionist goals. Credit: Tom Evans/Number 10/Flickr

Unwilling to risk dividing the UK with a substantive trade border in the Irish Sea, May instead agreed a ‘backstop’ under which – if no trade deal were agreed – the whole of the UK would remain aligned to the Customs Union. This diminished the Irish Sea border, but didn’t eliminate it: fearing that non-compliant goods would flow into the EU across an unmanaged land border, the EU insisted that Northern Ireland should retain its alignment to EU goods regulations – so if the rest of the UK chose to diverge from these rules in future, a regulatory border would appear between Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK would remain in the backstop until it could come up with a solution meeting the EU’s requirements: that the integrity of the Customs Union border be protected without the need for physical infrastructure.

May’s plan hit furious opposition from both Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the European Reform Group (ERG) of Tory backbench Brexiteers. The ERG were determined that the UK shouldn’t end up stuck in the Customs Union, unable to leave without the EU’s permission. And the DUP – whose MPs’ votes gave May her Commons majority – hated the idea of a regulatory border arising between the province and Britain.

Ruparel remembers warning DUP leaders that, if May fell and was replaced by Boris Johnson, “Boris is going to sell you out if it means a more distant relationship for the rest of the UK. They said: ‘Yes, we know, but we’ll take it as it comes’.” In Ruparel’s view, “they thought the ERG were their proper friends. In the end, their biggest miscalculation was their confidence that their position would be vindicated at an election and they would maintain the power-broking position they had.”

In the end, Johnson’s 2019 general election victory robbed the DUP over their power-broking position. Replacing May, Johnson renegotiated the exit deal to leave Northern Ireland largely in the EU’s regulatory orbit – creating customs and regulatory borders in the Irish Sea.

The DUP had vastly overplayed their hand: having rejected a deal that might have led in time to the creation of a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the British Isles, they paved the way for one that erected a customs and regulatory border immediately. “Look at where they are now,” comments Ruparel. “To be frank, I think that was a strategic error on their part.”

It was – as UKICE’s interviews show – far from the only strategic error made by the UK’s leaders. Many of those errors, the interviewees believe, were forced: they had little choice but to act as they did. Perhaps they should have tried to achieve things they thought impossible; the possible, at least, didn’t work out well for them. But all those trying to carry the Conservative party through Brexit faced one over-riding challenge. “The fundamental problem was that we were deeply internally divided,” says Davidson.

Ultimately, Johnson solved that problem, kicking former Remainers out of the party and landing a hard Brexit far from the promises made in 2016. In so doing, he protected the party’s unity – and introduced new dividing lines not only between Britain and the Continent, but also within the United Kingdom. “It is very hard to advance your country’s interests successfully when you have a fragile government that is… deeply, and patently obviously, internally divided on the question of what you are trying to negotiate,” concludes Davidson. “I am just surprised that we got as far as we did.”

Catch up with part one of this analysis here. Our two previous features drawing on UKICE’s interviews covered some of the missteps and omissions that shaped the UK’s Brexit journey, and the challenges facing civil servants working for a divided party. The full transcripts can be viewed at the UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit Witness Archive.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

One Comment

  1. Darius says:

    The stupidity is breathtaking.

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