Why Brexit’s mandarins must know their place

Ministers have to trust that civil servants will keep their opinions private

© PA

Civil servants advise, ministers decide,” as the saying has it. Good ministers listen carefully to official advice before deciding. Good officials carry out ministerial decisions and defend them once made. Ministers are more likely to follow official advice if it is well based in fact and has proved successful in the past in furthering the national interest.

The relationship is one of mutual trust.

Officials want to feel their advice is taken seriously, and to be involved in meetings leading up to the decision so that they understand the minister’s thinking. They need to know that ministers will defend them from public criticism when they are implementing policies agreed by the politicians.

This relationship can break down if these simple rules and beliefs are challenged. In the case of Sir Ivan Rogers, the outgoing UK ambassador to the EU, the relationship was damaged by leaks of his so-called advice to ministers, and then undermined further by the ambassador’s email saying that officials have to speak truth to power, as if this government was in some way unaware of what he and his colleagues regard as the “truth”.

No minister or prime minister can tolerate such a public spat from close advisers. Nor can ministers have confidence in someone who sees what they say as truth, implying an alternative view is a lie or a self-delusion. Ministers are well aware of the various views around Europe about Brexit, but it is their duty to form a UK view.

All this matters especially when it comes to discussing the UK’s relationship with the EU once we have taken back control of our money, our borders and our laws. I well remember just how badly the UK system worked for negotiating as an EU member state when I was the minister responsible for the single market in the 1990s. There were times when I was given minimum objectives to secure in a negotiation about some new law or directive by a cabinet committee, only to find someone unknown had passed our bottom line to the European Commission or other members.

I often thought the aims lacking in ambition. Not infrequently they related to a new law that business either did not want or wanted modified substantially. I then had to buttress our position by implying I had power to go beyond the committee’s requirements and demand more if I wanted to get something other than the weak result the government was prepared to settle for. The UK’s bottom line was usually guided by advice from officials about what the commission would accept.

We saw how disastrous this negotiating style became when David Cameron, former prime minister, accepted official advice to ask for very little from the rest of the EU when he sought to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the rest of the bloc. If you go round the other states and the commission asking what they would like the UK to receive, the answer will range from nothing to precious little. If you then decide to regard this as the last word and ask for very little, they will tell you that is too much.

That is why Brexit ministers are determined that we need to negotiate in a more disciplined way, putting the UK’s interests first. I have advice for them: there is no need to negotiate at all over talking back control of our borders, our money and our law making. That is what the UK voters voted for. The government must just do it, as it can legally under the European treaties. Officials will tell us that the rest of the EU wants us to carry on paying contributions, accepting EU laws and continuing with freedom of movement. Of course they would prefer that but we have decided not to. There is nothing the EU could offer us that makes it worthwhile to compromise over these crucial matters.

All too often the UK establishment discusses what Britain could sacrifice, but rarely does it examine what we would get back for the sacrifice. No wonder the members of the establishment negotiated so badly for us in the past. The only significant issue outstanding about our future relationship is trade. We should offer a tariff-free arrangement. If the rest of the EU opt instead for the low average tariffs of the World Trade Organisation, we know that can work for us as we rely on it for the rest of our trade. I suspect, after all the huffing and puffing, they will want tariff-free as it is more in their interests than ours.

The writer is MP for Wokingham

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