Civil servants standing down and speaking out shows the Brexit shambles we’re in

Whatever the true reasons for Olly Robbins’ move from civil servant in charge of the Department for Exiting the European Union to a new role at No. 10, it is another demonstration of the shambles behind the government’s Brexit strategy.

When top civil servants, both current and former, speak out, you know we are in trouble. The ‘unrealistic expectations’ over Brexit together with the ‘complexity of the challenge’ and ‘overburdened administration’ has pushing them into telling tales on their masters.

And because it is civil servants, rather than that trio of laughing boys, Davis, Fox and Johnson, who actually have to make Brexit happen, we should also be very worried.

Senior civil servants have spilt the beans on a Cabinet riven with internal conflict over the direction of Brexit.

No surprises there you might say, but they also reveal there have been no detailed discussions across government departments about the impacts of leaving the single market and ‘excessive secrecy’ by the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) over its negotiating position.

When a bunch of reckless politicians persuaded a majority of UK citizens to vote to withdraw from the European Union a year ago they created a nightmare for the country’s civil servants.

If it is two things civil servants hate it is having to damage your country and a lack of clear political direction. It’s clear that for most of the senior people in key government departments Brexit brings both. 

This is why some of the most experienced civil servants, who might help us out of the morass – most prominently Ivan Rogers, our ambassador to the EU – have left their posts. Others struggle on through a patriotic sense of duty and the desire to make Brexit as painless as possible.

Ambitious and high flying civil servants tasked with making Brexit happen will tend to be young and well educated – exactly the sort of people who are strongly pro-European and who understand clearly the damage Brexit will do to our country, our economy and our standing in the world.

These are the very things they thought they had entered the civil service to uphold and enhance. In short, they are being required to unpick their work; something that must be intensely painful.

I caught a glimpse of this anguish around Christmas time when I met a Brit on Eurostar who had worked for the European Parliament and had been head-hunted to one of the key departments dealing with Brexit.

She had been employed on the basis of her expertise on European policy, something sorely lacking up to that point. On arriving at the department, she was asked to try not to mention Brexit because this often caused people to burst into tears and made it difficult to get work done.

This was six months after the referendum and the emotional state of these professional people was still so fragile.

I am sure that civil servants often joke about the way we politicians expect them to achieve the impossible, but with Brexit this is not a joke.

Last June, at the instigation of a bunch of charlatans, ‘the will of the people’ instructed political representatives to achieve a deal that ensures we have all the benefits of EU membership but without the costs.

They are required to persuade 27 other heads of state to fatally damage a project they have been honing for 40 years. They are also being required to restore relationships with former imperial possessions we alienated when we joined the EU more than 40 years ago.

When politicians lose the plot and start believing their own fantasy it is civil servants who get instructed to make that fantasy a reality.

The decision by senior civil servants to speak out is not a sign of disloyalty but a signal that ultimate loyalty lies with their country not their political masters. And that loyalty requires them to point out the irresponsible and damaging mess that the Tories are creating with their Brexit fantasy.

Molly Scott Cato is MEP for the South West and Green Party speaker on Brexit. She tweets here.

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