Sam McBride: A broken Whitehall which knew more about China than about NI

Five years ago, the UK was in the final weeks of an EU referendum campaign which would reshape the country for generations to come in a way which few then realised.

By Sam McBride
Sunday, 30th May 2021, 9:53 am
Even if the decision to leave was wise, the way in which it has been implemented has been chaotic. Photo: Tolga AKMEN/AFP via Getty
Even if the decision to leave was wise, the way in which it has been implemented has been chaotic. Photo: Tolga AKMEN/AFP via Getty

Over the last five years we have come to appreciate the intricacies of the UK’s ties to the EU, how entwined politics is with economics, and how abstract regulations impact almost every aspect of our lives.

But there is so much about what happened five years ago – as well as what preceded and followed that vote – which remains either unknown or contested.

Regardless of one’s view of Brexit, few people would dispute that the last few years have been not much short of disastrous for the UK.

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Even if the decision to leave was wise, the way in which it has been implemented has been chaotic. If the country is to learn from what happened, it needs first to be clear about precisely what did happen.

In such a polarising area, even establishing facts has been difficult. Over recent months the think tank UK In a Changing Europe has performed an important public service by conducting numerous detailed interviews with some of the key figures at the heart of events.

The ‘Brexit Witness Archive’ includes senior civil servants, Tory ministers, Labour shadow ministers, former Brussels bureaucrats, and key members of Ukip and the Brexit Party.

The interviewers are knowledgeable, allowing them to engage with or challenge answers about what are a series of stupendously complex situations before and after the vote to leave the EU. They are not attempting to embarrass the interviewee or prove that they have made errors, but rather trying to extract information.

There is in many of the interviewees an element of unsurprising defensiveness. But there is also a considerable degree of candour. Mistakes are repeatedly admitted; miscalculations are accepted.

Emerging from the interviews is a sense of how few simple answers there may have been to many of these problems. Even going to back what many Remainers see as the original sin of David Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on leaving the EU, recalling the political context in which that pledge was made shows the narrowness of his options.

With Ukip soaring, his own party mutinous on Europe, and crisis after crisis in the eurozone, Mr Cameron was constantly on the defensive.

Raoul Ruparel, who would go on to become Theresa May’s special adviser on Europe, told the think tank that “since Maastricht and the creation of the Euro the UK’s position was increasingly difficult within the EU.

“It was always going to come to a head at some point... I tend to think even if Cameron hadn’t made that promise, it was inevitable that a Conservative Prime Minister would have made it in the not-too-distant future.”

Ultimately, if the Conservative Party wanted a referendum, its members could ensure that only someone who would deliver a plebiscite would be made leader.

That could have meant that rather than Cameron leading the pro-EU campaign at a time when he was a relatively popular Prime Minister, his successor could have called a vote and used the weight of the state not to attempt to keep the UK in the EU, as Cameron did, but to argue for the opposite result.

Sir Jonathan Faull, a UK-born senior European Commission official at the time of the referendum, said that “the 2015 election was obviously the turning point, with Cameron elected with an outright majority and having made the promise.

“From then on, I thought that he would find it very difficult to wriggle out of his promise and there would have to be a referendum.”

But once the referendum was held and the result was to leave the EU, one of the striking elements of the interviews is how they confirm a Westminster and Whitehall lacuna on Northern Ireland.

Philip Hammond, who by then had been in the cabinet for six years and who would soon be appointed chancellor, admitted that more than a year after the referendum the scale of the Northern Ireland problem had still not been appreciated by Mrs May or anyone else at the top of government.

The moment she realised what was at stake was “like a light bulb going on”, Hammond said, and from then on she believed that “the problems over Northern Ireland would inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom if we were not able to secure an arrangement with the European Union that allowed us, effectively, to able to access the Single Market”.

Sir Jonathan said: “The focus on Northern Ireland came far too late, despite warnings from me and others way back that people should start thinking very carefully about what would happen in Northern Ireland, particularly if different parts of the UK voted differently. I wouldn’t say we’d thought all that through fully.”

Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK permanent representative to the EU at the time of the referendum, said that British officials understood “well before the referendum, the centrality and immense difficulty of the [Irish] border question” and also that the Irish government would seek to have it inserted into phase one of the withdrawal agreement process, meaning that “the other 26 would always back the Member State against the non Member State”.

But he said that view was not shared by the ministers and spads who came in after the referendum.

Sir Ivan described the Irish diplomatic operation in Brussels as “much superior to Whitehall, which should give London pause for thought”.

Asked when she realised Northern Ireland was going to become the big issue, Mrs May’s former deputy chief of staff, Joanna Penn, said that in 2017 “I think I remember saying to someone, ‘Look, we’re nearly there on the money and the governance. We’ve had these big rows and we think we’ve got to a place that we can sell it. All we have is Northern Ireland, but that will be fine.’”

Suddenly, Northern Ireland disrupted everything, with DUP leader Arlene Foster humiliating Mrs May that December over the attempt to agree regulatory alignment between NI and the EU.

However, ultimately it was Mrs Foster who backed the wrong horse. Mr Ruparel said that “those of us who were involved in it know the ERG commitment to the DUP was always pretty hollow.

“I remember having a meeting with the DUP during the leadership contest, we were talking to them and said it basically came to, ‘You know Boris is going to sell you out,’ if it means a more distant relationship for the rest of the UK.

“They said, ‘Yes, we know but we’ll take it as it comes.’ They knew who they were getting into bed with as well. It’s all a bit bizarre. I think they thought they could exert the kind of pressure they did, over Boris, over Theresa.

“I think they thought the ERG were their proper friends. In the end, their biggest miscalculation was their confidence that their position would be vindicated at an election and they would maintain the power-broking position they had.”

Philip Rycroft, a senior civil servant who ended up as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said that “Northern Ireland and the governance of Northern Ireland has always been really complicated in Whitehall”.

He said bluntly: “The Whitehall I knew was quite good at looking at some long-term trends, like ageing, shifting geopolitical balance of power, the rise of China.

“That’s the stuff that turns most Whitehall folk on....It is quite extraordinary how little Whitehall understood about its own country. I think that remains the case today, in terms of the different elements that make up the United Kingdom.”


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