The UK and Europe

Whitehall’s preparations for Brexit

Robyn Munro / Dec 2016

Photo: European Union


A new report from the Institute for Government sets out how Whitehall is preparing for Brexit. Our research, based on interviews across 9 Whitehall departments and a range of voices from business and civil society, found that while Whitehall preparations have got off to a good start, more planning needs to be done to ensure the UK makes a success of Brexit.

Our report makes four main recommendations to Government:

Provide departments with more information about what is required of them, and when

Whitehall responded quickly to Brexit, setting up new departments and teams to prepare for negotiations. This work is being coordinated by the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) which commissions work from departments on the risk and opportunities around Brexit, to be fed into decisions on the UK’s negotiating position. But we found that some departments want more information about what is expected of them before talks begin. Some don’t have a clear sense of what ‘ready for Article 50’ looks like: which issues need to be decided as part of the negotiating position, and which can be dealt with later, once Article 50 talks are complete.

If the process and timelines for formulating a negotiating position were more clearly set out, the key domestic departments, who are providing much of the analysis upon which decisions will be made, would be able to prioritise and proactively manage their contributions.

Decide as soon as possible how negotiations will be managed

To get the best possible deal in Brexit negotiations, Government needs to draw on expertise from across departments. Based on how other countries have managed negotiations, there are several different models for how the UK could run the talks. In all cases, it is likely that negotiations will be run by a small team of senior negotiators – but how they will draw on departmental expertise is yet to be decided.

  • One option would be for the core negotiating team to work in relative isolation, supported by preparations done in advance by departments
  • The second option would supplement the core team with specialists drawn from departments providing full-time analytical support as talks develop
  • A third option would be for the core team to work directly with departments. This is how the EU will be negotiating, with specialists in DG Agriculture and DG Competition, for example, providing input

Government must decide which combination of these models it wishes to use, so that departments can prepare in advance and time is not wasted during negotiations with establishing teams or channels of communication.

Government will also want to keep Parliament updated as negotiations progress. Parliament will have to ratify the final deal – it is in Government’s interests to keep MPs updated as potential deals take shape, to check that it will have Parliament’s support.

Ensure that post-Brexit planning is being done across all departments, to prepare for ‘day one’ outside the EU

While much of Whitehall’s focus to date has been on preparing options for the Government’s negotiating position, it is important that planning extends beyond the Article 50 process to when we leave the EU. Some post-Brexit planning is underway – the Great Repeal Bill, for example, will carry over essential EU regulation and provide legal continuity at the point of Brexit.

But there are other systems and policies which the UK must have in place when it leaves the EU. Depending on the nature of our deal with the EU, the UK may need to put in place the following:

  • A system to manage immigration and border control;
  • A new customs regime, if the UK leaves the EU customs union;
  • New UK regulatory bodies to replace EU equivalents, such as the European Chemicals Agency or European Medicines Agency

These systems will be needed on day one after the UK leaves the EU – but they will take time to plan and implement. Departments should start contingency planning now to avoid a cliff edge after negotiations.

Set out priorities, allowing departments to allocate time, money and resources to essential work

The civil service has the skills and capabilities needed to deliver Brexit, including drafting legislation, managing negotiations and developing new policies. But much of this resource is being used elsewhere, to deliver pre-Brexit priorities including courts reform, reducing net immigration, and departmental change programmes. At the same time, departments have seen their headcount and budgets cut: the civil service is 20% smaller than it was in 2010, and many departments have seen significant spending reductions. Departments cannot carry out the work that is required to prepare for and deliver Brexit while also meeting these pre-existing demands with scarce resources.

Some additional resource has been provided to support Brexit. In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced up to £412m over the course of this Parliament for DExEU, DIT and the FCO to support Brexit-related work. But no additional resource was announced for existing departments to support them in Brexit preparations. If the Government wants to work within existing spending settlements, then departments must be able to reprioritise their limited resources to deal with Brexit. To do this, they need a clear steer from the centre of government about its priorities and what plans can be trimmed or delayed.

In conclusion, our research found that Whitehall has adapted quickly to the pressure of preparing for Brexit. DExEU has established itself quickly, putting new teams in place and developing cross-government structures. Teams working on Brexit across Government are doing so with energy, optimism and professional dedication.

But more needs to be done to deliver a successful Brexit deal. Departments need clarity on what forward planning they should do, what role they are expected to play in negotiations, and how they should prioritise their limited resources. Without a clear steer from the centre of government, there is a risk that the UK is not fully prepared for Brexit talks – or, more importantly, for life outside the EU.

Robyn Munro

Robyn Munro

December 2016

About this author ︎►

Related content