UK cabinet secretaries defend pre-vote Brexit planning

By on 01/12/2016 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Jeremy Heywood & Robin Butler

Serving and former UK cabinet secretaries have defended the civil service against accusations that it did too little to plan for a Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, explaining that officials did all the “confidential thinking” possible in the face of a ministerial ban.

Whitehall has come under fire following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, with critics arguing that civil servants should have done far more contingency planning. But at an event held yesterday at think tank the Institute for Government, serving and former cabinet secretaries pointed out that then-prime minister David Cameron had feared that any serious planning work would have leaked – permitting Leave campaigners to argue that the government thought it would lose the referendum.

“I think if I had been there before the referendum I would have felt a duty to be thinking about it, and perhaps have some very confidential discussions with people I could trust, but I think it’s jolly difficult to go beyond that,” said Lord Butler, who was cabinet secretary between 1988 and 1998. Cameron banned both any contingency planning for a Leave vote across government, and any contact between officials and Leave campaigners.

Sir Jeremy Heywood, the current cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, said that civil servants had undertaken some research in response to a direct request from the House of Lords for information on the alternatives to EU membership, and explained that officials had done what they could in the “space between what was explicitly authorised – which was the documents we were told by Parliament to produce – and what was clearly off-limits. And I don’t think it’s wrong in any shape or form for me to exploit that space and do some confidential thinking, as Robin [Butler] has suggested.

“That’s what we did. I don’t think the prime minister would have been angry about it if he’d discovered that. I didn’t discuss it with him because he was out campaigning. That was what he was doing. And I think we struck the right balance on this one.”

At the event, Heywood and Butler were joined by Lord Armstrong, cabinet secretary from 1979 to 1987; Lord Wilson (1998-2002); Lord Turnbull (2002-2005) and Lord O’Donnell (2005-2011). At the event, these six surviving cabinet secretaries discussed the intricacies of the role and the various crises they’d dealt with while installed at the very top of Whitehall.

Lord Armstrong described the Falklands War as a “great professional challenge”, while Butler said he got the most satisfaction from dealing with the Gulf War – despite a minor spat with then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. “Not for the only time, I could have strangled her,” he quipped.

Lord Wilson recalled standing in for Tony Blair as chair of a meeting on the day of 9/11 until the then-prime minister was able to attend. “I had very few periods when I was free from some sort of crisis or emergency,” he said. “There were very few smooth patches left to do the day job.”

But Lord O’Donnell, who was cabinet secretary during the 2008 global financial crisis, said that the term “crisis” is used too freely. “The question I used to put was: ‘Well, how many people have died?’” he said. “A lot of what you do in the job is act as a shock absorber, not an amplifier”.

Lord O’Donnell recently called on prime minister Theresa May to reveal her vision for a post-Brexit Britain, in an interview with Global Government Forum.

Heywood concluded: “People say the civil service can’t cope with a crisis. Just look back on some of the things we have had to deal with.”

The cabinet secretary explained that although the role of cabinet secretary has evolved over time – it has sometimes, and not very successfully, been combined with the job of head of the civil service – it has always involved a mix of being trusted adviser, behind-the-scenes investigator, official note-taker, adviser on the machinery of government, and leader of the civil service.

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See also:

Former UK chancellor condemns ‘idiotic’ Brexiteer lines on EU talks

Interim Brexit deal with EU ‘inevitable’ for UK, says former Foreign Office chief

UK government under pressure to set out Brexit ‘vision’

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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