Theresa May is struggling to summon enough political courage to admit there will be difficulties in Britain’s exit from the European Union, according to the head of the senior civil servants’ union.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, said the prime minister’s inability to talk openly about the complexity of Brexit could lead to a breaking point in Whitehall as staff struggle with an immense workload on limited resources.
Civil servants across government departments are preparing for May to trigger article 50 in March, launching the Brexit process.
He said: “It is pure politics that is defining the Brexit debate and forcing May to say this is not a big, difficult job, and it is all in hand. Ministers lack the political courage to admit how complex and time-consuming this will be. When anyone pops their head above the parapet – former permanent secretaries, ex-cabinet secretaries, the Institute for Government – and says this is going to take a long time and it’s complex, they are immediately shot down and accused of betraying the will of the people.
“The politics around Brexit are the biggest risk to Brexit. The government is clearly in a situation where they are trying to deny the complexity of it.”
The FDA’s 19,000 members are at the forefront of the work within Whitehall as Britain prepares to leave the EU.
Some of those who have been criticised for highlighting the challenges include Gus O’Donnell, a former cabinet secretary, John Manzoni, the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, Simon Fraser, a former Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, and Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service.
Penman, who has held many discussions with senior mandarins involved in developing a Brexit strategy, said May and her ministers would have to make difficult decisions about priorities in the coming months.
“The civil service is either going to have to be given more resources to deal with Brexit and its usual work or it will have to change its priorities. And government doesn’t want to admit to either,” he said.
“Ministers don’t want to admit that this work and the choices are complex because it doesn’t play well politically and they don’t want to make hard choices around priorities. But something has got to give.”
Penman said the government may have to drop some of its priorities or increase the resources given to the civil service.
He pointed out that only two ministries – Liam Fox’s international trade department and the Foreign Office – had been given extra resources, while others were dealing with Brexit, a cuts programme and trying to implement a domestic agenda at the same time.
“To some degree civil servants are used to this process – government has for many years been about giving the civil service less money, not more. But what is unique this time is the scale, the complexity and the politics of it all,” he said.
The Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were facing a particularly difficult time this coming year, he said. About 1,200 EU laws, one-quarter of the total, relate to Defra, which distributes £3bn of EU money to farmers, and oversees fishing quotas and water quality.
“Defra is going to be 35%-40% smaller in 2019 than it was in 2010. Its ability to cope with supporting the government’s negotiations around key policy areas for it, plus dealing with what day one outside of the EU looks like, is an enormous challenge. Andrea Leadsom [the environment secretary] is going to have to make some choices,” he said.
Departments were bracing themselves for ministerial initiatives that would be increasingly difficult to implement because Brexit would require so much of the staff’s time and resources, he said.
Some staff within the Home Office were shocked when the home secretary, Amber Rudd, told the Conservative party conference in September that she would force firms to identify their foreign workers.
Penman said the plan had prompted some anxiety among officials because it would have taken dozens of staff away from Brexit planning for many months to make such a scheme work properly.
“When they dreamed up this idea of setting up a register of EU nationals, there was panic in the Home Office because the civil servants understood the complexity and the time and resource required to do something like that,” he said.
Ministers would in time be forced to drop some non-Brexit initiatives, Penman predicted. “Either Brexit is not going to be funded and resourced or the PM is going to have to drop something. Something is going to have to give, and it is not going to be Brexit.
“Brexit dominates everything right now – the politics and the civil service and everyone is focused on the great repeal bill and article 50. All the government is doing right now is preparing the ground for the negotiating process.
“The civil service will have to effectively run a Formula One car whilst building next year’s car at the same time. It can be done, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
Penman’s intervention came as a report by Migration Watch UK claimed that immigration from the EU will remain high if Britain stays in the European single market after Brexit.
It estimated if that in that scenario the UK’s scope to reduce net migration from the bloc from its current 189,000-a-year level would be “extremely limited” and it would be unlikely to fall below 155,000 a year in the medium term.