politics

U.K. Government Is Too Distracted to Brace for Brexit, IFG Says

  • Some 85 of 122 ministers are new to their posts since June
  • Ministerial turnover, political turbulence impeding progress

Tony Blair Says EU Will Be Diminished Without U.K. Economy

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is too beset by political turbulence and ministerial turnover to effectively prepare Britain for Brexit, the Institute for Government said.

Those issues impede the government’s ability to pass legislation and deal with “pressing” public service challenges, the think-tank said Thursday in a report that lays bare the scale of the upheaval in May’s team. 

David Davis

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Some 85 of her 122 ministers are in new posts since the general election in June. At the Department for Exiting the European Union, just the Secretary of State David Davis and one other minister have remained in place since the department’s creation 18 months ago.

A separate briefing on the Department for International Trade by the National Audit Office said that the “model of moving staff every few years” could be problematic, since trade and negotiating skills require time to master. “Considerable work will need to be done to build skills that have not existed in government for a generation,” the report said.

‘Vassal State’

May’s government and her fractious Conservative Party have been beset by infighting since she became prime minister in the wake of the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU.

Davis said Wednesday that Britain will stay close to the EU’s regulatory regime after it leaves the bloc, which risks infuriating the Euroskeptic hardliners in May’s Conservative Party, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads the party’s backbench Brexit supporters.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Rees-Mogg told Davis on Wednesday that Britain risks becoming a “vassal state” during the proposed Brexit transition period during which it will accept EU rules without any say over writing them.

The government has only introduced five of the nine bills needed for Brexit, and with the EU Withdrawal Bill behind schedule, time is running out for the 1,000 pieces of secondary legislation to be passed that are needed for the U.K.’s exit from the bloc, the IFG report said.

‘Picture of Opacity’

A lack of openness from the U.K. may also be hindering negotiations with European leaders. The Brexit department was the least likely of all to release information in response to requests, and has a lower response rate for parliamentary questions and ministerial correspondence, according to IFG.

“This poor performance reflects more than the growing pains of a new department, and is only part of a broader picture of opacity,” the report said. Not only have ministers failed to publish -- and then denied the existence -- of Brexit impact reports, they “have been opaque about their negotiating objectives even as the EU has used transparency as a tool to set the agenda and get what it wants.”

May is reportedly planning a speech, potentially next month, in which she will spell out her goals for negotiations.

Philip Hammond

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

She and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond have also been under increasing pressure at home as public services struggle with spending cuts. An official report published last week showed conditions in a Liverpool prison were among the worst inspectors had ever seen.

“Finding ways to control spending further without affecting the quality of public services will be challenging, given that most ‘belt-tightening’ options, like pay freezes and staff cuts, have already been tried,” the report said.

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