EU Referendum

Brexit: the Lady's not for planning


Untypically, but helpfully, the Mail has published the full text of Mrs May's speech at the Mansion House last night. This was the Prime Minister, with not a little style, putting a brave face on her leadership of a Government that is leaving many wondering about whether it is really coping. 

Her confidence, on globalisation, free trade and related issues is somewhat undermined though by a front page story in The Times, which has an altogether different take. Whitehall, we are told, is working on more than 500 Brexit-related projects and could need 30,000 extra civil servants to meet the expected workload.

Civil servants are struggling to meet Mrs May's March deadline for an Article 50 notification, and is finding that the 500 projects on the stocks are beyond the capacity and capability of government to execute quickly.

Every department has developed a "bottom-up" plan to deal with the worst case and, although necessary, "falls considerably short of having a government plan for Brexit", because it has no prioritisation and no link to the overall negotiation strategy.

According to a confidential memorandum, it may be six months before there is a view on priorities/negotiation strategy as the political situation in the UK and the EU evolves. Despite extended debate among Permanent Secretaries, no common strategy has emerged, in part because the potential scope and negotiating positions have to be curtailed before realistic planning can happen, in part because of the divisions within the Cabinet.

It is likely that the senior ranks in the civil service will feel compelled to present potential high-level plans to avoid further drift, but departments are struggling to come up to speed on the potential Brexit effects. This is due to starting from as relatively low base on insight and because of fragmentation between departments.

Nevertheless, Mrs May was up on her hind legs last night, talking the talk, telling us that, "for as long as we are members of the EU, we will continue to lead the way in pressing for an ambitious EU trade agenda, just as we have done in supporting the very welcome recent EU-Canada deal".

She also tells us that, "as we leave the European Union", we will "use the strength and size of our economy to lead the way in getting out into the world and doing new business with old allies and new partners alike".

We will, she says, "use the freedoms that come from negotiating with partners directly, to be flexible, to set our own rules and forge new and dynamic trading agreements that work for the whole UK". In our negotiations on leaving the European Union, she adds, "we are not trying to replicate the deal that any other country has with the EU. And we are not going for an off-the-shelf solution".

But, from behind the scenes, her own civil servants seem to be calling her out. Mrs May on the one hand has it that we will be "the true Global Champion of free trade in this new modern world", yet her own government has been unable to come up with a strategy to leave the EU.

The worst of it all, as industry has realised, is that the Government's priority remains its political survival, not the economy and that there will be no clear economic-Brexit strategy any time soon because it is being developed on a case-by-case basis as specific decisions are forced on Government. Yet, concluding her speech at the Mansion House, Mrs May told her audience that she stood there, "confident" that in facing these new challenges, "once again, Britain can lead".

But for Britain to lead, Mrs May has to have a plan. Without one, we don’t lead – we follow. And, so far – if we are to believe what we are told - she not only doesn't have one, there is nothing in the immediate offing. The Lady, it seems, is not for planning.