Thursday, October 29, 2020
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TCW’s Brexit Watch

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BREXIT Watch entwines with Covid-19 Watch as the extraordinarily powerful Remainer cohorts continue their visceral attempt to stop Brexit by demanding an extension to the UK’s legally enshrined date of leaving the EU on December 31. Yet another of the defeated and discarded Tory Remainer generalissimos, David Lidington, has announced that it is ‘inevitable’ that the December 31 deadline will be extended. His claim that the coronavirus crisis afflicting Europe has slowed down progress on a comprehensive deal with the EU ignores the stonewalling approach of the EU towards any reasonable deal. 

And while coronavirus is being used as an excuse for delaying Brexit, Brexit is being blamed in turn for Boris Johnson’s belated (asleep at the wheel) coronavirus response, amongst other things. Brexit is blamed for the failures over PPE procurement – the UK not joining the EU joint purchasing scheme is the reason rather than NHS and governmental incompetence, which seemingly knows no bounds.

The Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health is Sir Chris Wormald, the most senior civil servant in charge of health and social care since his appointment in 2016. He is also head of Civil Service Policy Profession, the professional group for those working to bring together evidence, delivery and the political context to support ministers in achieving outcomes for government and change in the real world, and a role entitled Policy Leaders Fellow, Centre for Science and Policy.

He leads the day-to-day running of the department and heads the department’s senior team, with responsibility for:

  • advising ministers on strategy and objectives for the health and social care system;
  • setting standards within the department;
  • making arrangements for governance, assurance and risk management;
  • overseeing the department’s performance and assuring the performance of sponsored organisations;
  • approving the department’s business plan, resource accounts, departmental report and major spending.

Sir Chris has ensured, or so it is documented, that no-deal preparations for the smooth ongoing supply of medical products are in place, so where Brexit is concerned, it seems that he has acted efficiently. 

In a lecture given in August 2019 entitled The Price of Success: What the NHS Can’t Do, Sir Chris argued that the NHS was accomplishing all it could and that other issues affecting health, such as climate change, were not part of its remit.

While he was right as to the second, his confidence with regard to the first, as today’s crisis demonstrates all too tragically, seems wildly complacent. Sir Chris said: ‘So essentially, if you look at the [department’s] original mission, we’ve basically solved the problem it was originally aimed at. And now we have a whole range of different challenges which are more about what happens when you achieve your original mission, and how you adapt.’  

Unsurprisingly, a great weight of criticism is descending on our health bureaucrats, for example from the Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner who argues that they have led us towards ruin.

But as reported in another recent civil service discussion paper, Sir Chris does appear, too late it seems, to have realised a weakness in the system in terms of amateur generalist managers and the need for specialists in the various governmental fields, arguing for more integration of specialists. This paper, Professionalising Whitehall, published just under a year ago by the Institute for Government, argues that Brexit ‘requires the civil service to deliver its biggest and most complex challenge in peacetime history’. The content of the paper is a summary and analysis drawn from the series of events and speakers the institute convened to help expedite this.

Encouragingly for those who now think that the civil service is irredeemably Remainer, the paper contains a paragraph endorsing the need for deep improvement and changes in terms of adapting to government after Brexit. It can be found on page 7 of the paper in the section headed Harnessing Brexit? It reads:

‘The challenge of exiting the EU provides an unprecedented operating environment for the civil service, but it is also an opportunity to transform the way it works. Speakers indicated that specialisms come into their own when faced with challenges of this nature – supporting the Government in dealing with issues cutting across departments. Rupert McNeil argued that Brexit presents opportunities to show the value of reforms to professionalise Whitehall. Specialisms play a key role in ensuring that the right expertise is deployed across the civil service, operating consistently and based on high standards. The head of the Government Project Delivery Function echoed that the sheer volume and complexity of Brexit had already pushed the Government to join up departments and specialisms, and that specialisms had played a key role in this process. For example, there is evidence that they enabled the civil service to have discussions about how to optimise the deployment of specialists in different areas of government to meet priorities such as exiting the EU.’

While the public now despairs of the quality of national administration and the remainer anti -democratic technocratic grip, there are some signs of good practice. We must hope that the ice might be at last melting in some areas of Whitehall as to accepting democracy and preparing for a clean Brexit, and that the coronavirus crisis is not used to block reform and return to its dire Remainer default.

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Timothy Bradshaw
Timothy Bradshaw is a Theological lecturer and Anglican clergyman

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