Secret story: inside the delivery suite with the reluctant midwives of Brexit

By on 25/03/2021 | Updated on 06/04/2021
The Remainers who delivered Brexit: decisions by Tory PMs Theresa May and David Cameron led to the UK’s EU exit. Credit: Andrew Parsons/Flickr

In-depth interviews with Conservative special advisers and ministers reveal the moments that shaped Britain’s exit from the EU. Matt Ross explores the strategic errors and political calculations that led two Remain-supporting prime ministers to pave the way for an extreme form of Brexit

The roots of Brexit go deep. Within a few years of the UK joining the then-European Economic Community in 1973, Oliver Letwin – a veteran Tory policy guru, MP and minister, known for providing astute advice in private and faux pas in public – was among the Conservatives’ growing group of ‘Eurosceptics’.

For decades, says Letwin, he argued that “the common market, the Single Market, was a good idea and beneficial to our trade and standing in the world. But the apparatus of central control from Brussels that was leading towards an emerging European state, while maybe very suitable for some other European countries, wasn’t ever going to be acceptable here.”

Letwin believed that the UK should retain its Single Market membership, while avoiding other forms of convergence. But his colleagues were adopting much more radical positions: by the time his party leader David Cameron won the 2015 general election, he says, many of them “had got to the: ‘We must get completely out of all of this forever and have nothing further to do with it’ position.”

Nonetheless, Brexit – let alone the ‘hard’ Brexit ultimately secured by PM Boris Johnson – was far from inevitable. Some of the missteps and omissions that shaped the UK’s Brexit journey, and the challenges facing civil servants working for a divided party, have already been revealed in interviews with many of the key players published by research group UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE). And now we’ve returned for a third excavation of UKICE’s archive.

In interviews with Letwin and four key Tory advisers, we unearth six key inflection points: particular decisions or behaviours which brought the UK to its current position. Here we cover three of these inflection points, and next week we’ll pick out three more – covering decision-making processes, 2016-19 prime minister Theresa May’s self-imposed ‘red lines’, and the Democratic Unionist Party’s ill-judged hubris.

One: a bet that went bad

David Cameron’s 2013 decision to promise an in-out EU referendum was conceived as a way to secure Britain’s place in the EU once and for all. At the time, the PM felt he had little choice: Denzil Davidson – then an adviser to the foreign secretary, and later May’s special adviser on Europe – believes that “the fight against the referendum had been lost in the Conservative Party, and it was perfectly clear that whoever succeeded David Cameron would be in favour of a referendum.” Better, the PM thought, to keep the process in the hands of those who’d back Remain.

What’s more, explains Letwin, Cameron feared that Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party could deny his party a majority at the 2015 election; promising a referendum would rob them of electoral support. And some of Cameron’s allies were quietly hoping that they’d end up back in Coalition talks with the Liberal Democrats, being required to trade away their referendum pledge: “I had prepared documents ready to sign on that basis,” recalls Letwin.

Chris Wilkins, a veteran Tory speechwriter and May’s director of strategy during her first year in office, says the referendum “had been injected for party management purposes and for political purposes. If we’d come out of the election with the Coalition government that we were all expecting, it might well have been put on the back burner.” For many people, he adds, “winning the 2015 election was a surprise. And suddenly you were landed with this problem: this sort of unexploded bomb, which you weren’t expecting to have to deal with.”

Two: catching a red herring

Cameron’s plan for defusing this bomb involved renegotiating the UK’s terms of membership with the EU, securing guarantees that would calm people’s fears of an ever-expanding EU superstate. But his 2009 decision to pull the Tories out of the European People’s Party – the centre-right group of European parties – had weakened his relationships with key national leaders, says Davidson: they “didn’t realise what David Cameron was up against, domestically, and did not appreciate his political needs.” While the PM won some useful concessions, none were eye-catching enough to shift the debate.

Oliver Letwin (centre) with Sir Jeremy Heywood (left), cabinet secretary 2011-18, and current health secretary Matt Hancock (right). Credit: UK CivilService/Flickr

At the time, Letwin thought the agreement would “put a brake on further integration and shift the relationship subtly, but very importantly, between us and the European Court of Justice – which I regarded as the main issue.” But such constitutional nuances did not survive contact with a referendum campaign fought on the binary battleground of Leave or Remain. In Wilkins’ view, “the referendum was never going to be about what he came back with in terms of the renegotiation”. The outcome “wasn’t a bad package”, he explains, but it was “slightly irrelevant to the main question.” Voters “weren’t going to be going through it line by line”: the debate “was much more visceral and emotional than that – and that was the game you had to engage in.”

Brexiteers certainly understood that, and focused on immigration and the UK’s history as a global trader and Empire-builder. A Remain campaign led by long-standing Eurosceptics – people who’d spent years downplaying the benefits of EU membership – could never show the same passion. During the 2010-15 Coalition, recalls Davidson, “the Brexiteers often successfully intimidated Number 10 into not broaching the positive arguments for the EU, for fear of the stink, the discord, that it would cause in the party when they had their eyes on winning the next election.” The renegotiation achieved many of its tactical goals, but proved a strategic failure.

Three: partisanship over partnership

On losing the referendum Cameron resigned, called a leadership contest, and handed the task of preparing the ground for Brexit to Letwin – who began talking to the opposition parties. Strong Remainers in Parliament, he felt, would seek to frustrate any exit talks, while hard Brexiteers “simply wanted to be out full stop, with no compromise of any kind about the future relationship.”

In his view, “the only way to keep those two groupings under control was to have a solid phalanx of 400-plus members of Parliament who were joined in a single pursuit.” By building a cross-party consensus around a relatively soft Brexit, he believed, “one could wend one’s way towards something that would be a unified, smooth transition to a different relationship.”

Letwin was exploring the potential for continued alignment to the Single Market or a close trade deal. But when May came to power in July, she promptly sacked him. “I’m no doubt it was all of that thinking in part that led… Theresa to think it was an urgent necessity to be rid of me,” he comments. “She took the view that it was necessary, if at all possible, to avoid the very thing that I thought it was necessary to promote: namely, cross-party governance of this issue.”

Given the parliamentary strength of the European Reform Group (ERG) of backbench Conservative Brexiteers, May’s approach was risky even with the slender Commons majority she inherited from Cameron. And when she lost that majority in a disastrous 2017 general election, she doubled down: to avert a leadership challenge, she hardened her Brexit position – securing a tiny majority through an alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Acidic personal chemistry: hostility between Theresa May (left) and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (right) stymied attempts to build cross-party consensus. Credit: UK Parliament/Flickr

Wilkins would have liked to have seen May adopt a “more consensual, more cross-party” approach in the weeks after the election. “I don’t know how you could look at that election result and say the message the country is sending us is that they really want a really hard Brexit,” he comments. But at that point, senior Brexiteers were terrified that their long-held goal might slip through their fingers. “They got around the PM and my belief is, I think they said to her: ‘You can stay as long as you drop everything else and just make our version of Brexit happen’,” says Wilkins. “It stemmed from a fear that the whole thing was about to come crashing down.”

It sounds obvious that “she should’ve taken a slightly different approach and tried to build coalitions,” comments Raoul Ruparel, then adviser to Brexit secretary David Davis. But had she done so, “she probably would have been removed immediately. This is… the fundamental tension with all of this. That persisted for a long time, and it’s why it took so long to get any kind of clarity on the approach. There was a bit of a paralysis of fear that, whichever way you move, you’re going to get taken down.”

For Letwin, May’s new Parliamentary weakness only deepened the need to find votes across the aisle. Perhaps it was already too late to build a consensus, he adds: “Anyway, she didn’t try. My level of anxiety about the lack of bipartisan governance of the matter increased from considerable to extreme at that point.” Two years later, May did finally approve talks with Labour – but by then, says Letwin, “the dynamic within each political party, and in particular the dynamic of the two leaders, ultimately made it impossible.”

That personal dynamic was certainly important. In Davidson’s words, the centre right viewed Corbyn as a “Kremlin-hugging terrorist cheerleader… who has been against his country in every dispute”: the mutual hostility between Conservative MPs and the Labour leader “from the start, I think, shaped the evolution of Brexit.” Had Labour still been led by Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband, he believes, “you could have had a smidgeon of a conversation where you might talk about the national interest”.

Brinksmanship and paralysis

By the end of 2018, recalls Letwin, “I could only see around me positions hardening to the point where we were going to be faced with the cataclysmic choice between two evils: not leaving, or leaving without a deal.” May was in big trouble: “Almost everything that was happening to her was happening in a way that she didn’t want and wasn’t planning. I didn’t think she was in control any more; I thought there were forces that were way beyond her capacity to control.”

If May couldn’t get an exit deal through Parliament by March 2019, the UK faced crashing out of the EU without arrangements for citizens’ rights, the Irish border and other crucial issues. “I thought it was entirely possible that she would end up leaving without a deal because she couldn’t find a way of not leaving without a deal – except not leaving, which she couldn’t do either,” says Letwin, who rebelled for the first time in his 20-year Commons career to join fellow moderates trying to prevent a disorderly exit.

“I hadn’t ever even abstained: I could be counted on to vote for things that I very much disliked, because they were the things the party was doing and I recognised that a party is a coalition of interests and views,” he comments. “But at this particular moment, I thought the nation was faced with a particularly severe risk. The party and the country had got themselves into a position where they weren’t going to be able to deliver a reasonable solution.”

Party politics and the national interest

After months of rancorous debate and two extensions to the exit date, May stepped down in 2019. Her successor, Boris Johnson, agreed a new exit deal – addressing the Irish border issue by leaving Northern Ireland largely within the EU’s regulatory ambit – then won a large majority in a December election, and negotiated a ‘thin’ trade deal with the EU.

His policy leaves exporters facing swathes of new ‘non-tariff barriers’, from the need for work permits to hefty new administrative costs, and offers little to the services businesses that dominate the UK’s economy. Further restrictions and rules are on their way, as this week’s Institute for Government report makes clear. Does this represent Letwin’s “reasonable solution”?

Well, the hard Brexiteers are content – but Remainers, moderates on both sides, the devolved administrations, and the DUP are very much not. And the public haven’t got what they were promised during the referendum campaign by Leavers, who maintained that British businesses wouldn’t face new barriers to trade with the Continent.

Faced with this highly complex and divisive issue, the UK’s political system has delivered a zero-sum, winner-takes-all result more extreme than anything proposed by the most hardened Brexiteers back in 2016. To the extent that democracy involves finding solutions to divisive issues that command the broadest possible public support, that system has clearly failed.

“There are some strengths in the binary way our system works, but it is set up to foster division,” says Davidson. “The problems of a failure to look for consensus have been demonstrated over the past few years.” And Letwin worries that these days, the UK’s public debate is too rarely “a discussion between grown-ups who accept that people can honestly and rationally hold differing views.”

“There is real merit in competitive democracy… There’s real merit in debate, in bringing out the arguments on either side,” he says. “These things are built into our legal system, they’re built into our Parliamentary system – and long may they remain.

“But if that productive dialectic just turns into catcalling and a refusal to accept that the other side is motivated by anything other than low motives, the system will not work properly,” Letwin concludes. “We face many problems as a country at the moment, but I think that’s the biggest underlying problem we’re likely to face over the next 20 or 30 years. If that lack of mutual respect in politics goes on being the case, we won’t be able to tackle the very serious problems we all face because we’re just going to be having a continuous argy-bargy between people who aren’t recognising the force of each other’s arguments.”

Watch out for the second part of this feature next week, when we’ll examine the impact of the May government’s decision-making processes, her self-imposed ‘red lines’, and the Democratic Unionist Party’s ill-founded hubris. And meanwhile, read our two previous features drawing on UKICE’s interviews, covering 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.

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