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Lack of government strategy and clarity delaying Brexit work

The prime minister’s handling of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union risks leading to divisions, confusion and a £65m cost for the government, the Institute for Government (IfG) has said.

The IfG’s new briefing paper says that Theresa May’s decision to establish two new government departments for handling Brexit, instead of a unit within the Cabinet Office as the think tank suggested, “has caused distractions and delayed work” because of a lack of clarity about each department’s responsibilities.

It urges May to “stamp out turf wars” between the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Foreign Office.

Jill Rutter, co-author of the report, said: “Ministers will be faced with a series of difficult choices over the shape of Brexit. These are too important to be left to normal interdepartmental wrangling and horse-trading.

“Whitehall in general and the new Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) in particular will need to make sure ministers can make those choices on the best shared analysis the Civil Service can produce.”

The IfG estimates that to deliver a successful Brexit, the DExEU will need to hire around 320 additional staff at a cost of £28-40m, whilst the DIT will need 200 staff at a cost of £17m-£25m. This amount could increase if the departments feel compelled to offer a higher salary in order to attract talented staff from around the world.

The report says that the Civil Service “does not appear to have a clear idea of the legislative implications of Brexit” such as what new legislation will be required and what will be repealed.

Once negotiations are underway, the IfG warned that work on Brexit will “crowd out” the government’s other legislative reforms. In addition, there will be “huge complexities in reconciling the positions of the devolved and UK governments”.

After voting to remain in the EU, Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, has already announced her intention to seek a second independence referendum. Northern Ireland also voted to remain and is concerned about staying in the single market and maintaining an open border with the Republic of Ireland.

Dr Hannah White, co-author of the report, said the only statement on the government’s Brexit policy so far has been “personal musings of individual ministers”.

David Davis, the secretary for exiting the EU, recently told Parliament that it was “very improbable” that the UK will remain a member of the single market if it is to gain control of its borders.

The following day, a spokesperson for May said Davis was “setting out his opinion”, not stating government policy. She added that this was “frustrating those looking for an early exit, perplexing those with whom we have to negotiate and unsettling those looking to do business in the UK”.

“Silence is not a strategy,” Dr White said. “The prime minister has sworn she will not give a running commentary on negotiations, but she needs rapidly to clarify how and when the government intends to go about making decisions on Brexit.”

The IfG said the Civil Service needs to develop “common understanding” on which departments are likely to win and lose as a result of Brexit.

It also said the Civil Service should take a co-ordinated effort to make the most of its existing staff, and if necessary recruit expertise from outside. A review of Civil Service expertise is already underway.

(Image c. Daniel Leal-Olivas from PA Wire and Press Association Images)

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