Former civil service head says ‘redesigning government machine’ will bring about avoidable teething problems

Gus O’Donnell
Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, appeared on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, discussing some of the ramifications of Brexit. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Amid reports of Whitehall tensions between ministers seeking to control the Brexit strategy, the longstanding former head of the civil service said he would have given the functions of the new department for exiting the EU (DEXEU) and department for international trade (DIT) to the Cabinet Office instead.

A report from the Institute for Government (IfG), a thinktank, said last week there was “uncertainty and concern” among senior civil servants about the kind of deal the prime minister would like to strike with the EU and civil servants’ roles within it.

In an interview with Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, O’Donnell indicated that it he would not have set up any more departments because it takes time for any new departments in Whitehall to settle in. “Machinery of government changes are cumbersome and create all sorts of issues about setting up offices and computer systems and new ministers in new departments. So frankly I’m in favour of trying to use the machine you’ve got rather than redesign the machine because that takes time, inevitably takes time,” he said.

“Normally the Cabinet Office would do [the roles of co-ordination] and if I’d been advising the prime minister I’d probably have said ‘This is a standard Cabinet Office function, you don’t need an extra department’,” he said in an interview broadcast on Sunday night.

O’Donnell, once known as GOD among officials because of his initials and his constant presence at crucial meetings, was cabinet secretary for six years between 2005 and 2011, and served under three prime ministers.

His opinion follows reports of confusion over how the civil service should plan for Brexit. The IfG said: “There are many cases where more information about that negotiating position would support departments in their planning. But Theresa May’s preference is to keep these details under wraps until talks begin … The government should provide departments with more detailed information on the process they are following.”

O’Donnell’s intervention was made after Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show that the UK could remain a partial member of the EU customs union after Brexit.

Fox refused to confirm explicitly that he supported a transitional arrangement with the EU to tide Britain over between a formal exit in 2019 and any new trade deal with Brussels, an arrangement the chancellor, Philip Hammond, backs.

On the same programme, George Osborne warned that scrapping existing trade arrangements with the EU in the hope of achieving new deals would be the “biggest act of protectionism in British history”.

In his first major broadcast interview, he urged the prime minister not to have “red lines” on issues like immigration. “I would say we are leaving the EU – that’s the only red line I would draw – let’s go in there and try and get the best deal for Britain,” he said.

He also appeared to take a swipe at Theresa May by emphasising that he was at the forefront of the remain campaign, while others chose to sit it out. The prime minister has faced criticism for a low profile during the campaign, even though she was supposed to be campaigning to stay in the EU.

Asked if it was true that he did not want Cameron to hold a referendum, Osborne said: “I wasn’t a great fan of having a referendum but I am also a team player. And politics is most successful when you are part of a team. Once we were in the referendum, I did everything I could to win it. I was not going to sit it out.”