Saturday 29th Dec 2018
The Civil Service is ready for a no deal
It is shocking that some ministers are putting civil servants like me on the
hook for political ends
by CAROLINE BELL
Every day there is some fresh claim in the press – backed up by people who
should (and perhaps really do) know better – that we must accept whatever
outrageous terms we are offered by an intransigent EU because we are not
prepared for no deal and it would be a disaster. This line is pushed by
Remainer Cabinet ministers trying to scare us into swallowing the Withdrawal
Agreement, and their friends campaigning for a second referendum – the Work
and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd’s brother Roland prominent among them.
This is Project Fear Mark (I think) III, which claims that we will all
“crash out” over the white cliffs of Dover into the Channel at llpm on March
29 2019 and wake up to certain chaos and doom.
If true, it would be a terrible indictment not only of this Government but
also of our Civil Service. And it is absolutely untrue, as anyone who, like
me, has been involved in Brexit work for the past two-and-a-half years in
Whitehall will tell you.
It is rather shocking that not only the Remainer media but even members of
the Government are putting civil servants on the hook for their own
political purposes, by implying that they have failed in their clear duty to
prepare for eventualities.
It may be true that certain civil servants are biased in favour of the EU.
That is because continued EU membership means certainty, and civil servants
love certainty. It makes planning one’s family commitments, work-life
balance and daily commute a lot easier. Strong and stable.
Dull and secure. Plodding and punctilious. The opposite of challenging, new
But that very bias towards certainty and balance and horror of disorder
makes civil servants highly conscious of their duty to keep both their
school run and the country operating smoothly. They would not sit back and
allow the British public to be threatened by economic paralysis. Nor have
The frisson of horror evoked by such a prospect would shake the corridors of
power from Westminster to Brussels. A disorderly no-deal Brexit on March 29
is not compatible with the principles of good government in which the Civil
Service takes justified pride. It handles seismic change in much the same
way as it handles a decision on the design of a new online form or whether
to allow pot plants in the staff kitchen – in a very deliberate, considered,
Of course no-deal preparations have been made. Very detailed plans have been
proposed, assessed, analysed to death and finally agreed by working groups
and steering groups and directors’ boards and cross-Whitehall talking shops.
They have then been sent to ministers for approval. And they are now being
To claim otherwise is to equate the United Kingdom with a tinpot
dictatorship where officials tote machine guns and use pot plants for target
practice. And we would never allow that.
It is even more ridiculous that this claim of unpreparedness is still being
parroted across the media and by MPs when some of the most crucial elements
of no-deal planning have now been made public. In a very surreptitious way,
of course. Almost as though the Government didn’t want even its own
backbenchers to know.
While things were hotting up in the Commons over the Withdrawal Agreement
before Parliament rose for Christmas, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs made
important no-deal customs regulations and wrote to businesses advising them
on the new procedures for import and export from March 29, with links to
guidance and even to application forms for grants to help with IT upgrades
and staff training. Just-in-time importers are also being advised to
register now as Trusted Traders, in order to benefit from simplified customs
Job advertisements for customs warehouse officers at an inland clearance
site in Milton Keynes have gone live, too. This is so that lorries can be
diverted away from the Channel ports for targeted checks. The European Union
and various member states have also announced bilateral arrangements for
euro clearing and financial services, for visa-free tourist travel, and for
The French have installed high-tech freight scanners at Calais to keep trade
and tourism flowing. Open Skies agreements have been signed with our most
important aviation partners, the US and Canada. Further agreements are
planned. And we have just agreed the transition of a trade agreement with
Switzerland, which will allow businesses to carry on trading freely after
our country leaves the European Union.
There are hundreds of such no-deal plans across all government departments
just waiting for the green light from ministers to be made public. There are
more bilateral “managed WTO” agreements on the horizon and a rapid
acceleration of work in the Civil Service to deliver a no-deal Brexit.
An enormous effort by thousands of hard-working civil servants has been made
to ensure that if we leave the EU without a deal, “crashing out” over a
“cliff edge” is simply not going to be an option, and it is purely a
political decision not to make this clear to the public and nervous
But if the Government was to be frank with Parliament and the country, what
justfication would be left for its disastrous Withdrawal Agreement? What
would Remainers do without a Project Fear? They would need to think up
convincing positive arguments for staying in the EU, something that has so
far proved beyond them.
The author is a serving civil servant engaged in preparing the UK/or a
Brexit on WTO rules after March 29 2019.
She therefore writes under a pseudonym.