Sam McBride: A broken Whitehall who knew more about China than NI
Over the past five years, we have come to appreciate the intricacies of the UK’s ties to the EU, how intimately politics are tied to the economy, and how abstract regulations impact almost all aspects of our lives.
But there is so much about what happened five years ago – as well as what came before and after that vote – that remains either unknown or disputed.
Whatever our view of Brexit, few would dispute that the past few years have not been very disastrous for the UK.
Although the decision to leave was a wise one, the way it was implemented was chaotic. If the country wants to learn from what happened, it must first be clear about what happened.
In such a polarizing area, even establishing the facts has been difficult. Over the past few months, the UK think tank In a Changing Europe has rendered an important public service by carrying out numerous in-depth interviews with some of the key figures at the heart of the events.
The ‘Brexit Witness Archives’ include senior officials, Tory ministers, shadow Labor ministers, former Brussels bureaucrats and key members of Ukip and the Brexit Party.
Investigators are well informed, which allows them to engage or challenge responses to what is a series of incredibly complex situations before and after the vote to leave the EU. They don’t try to embarrass the interviewee or prove they made mistakes, but rather extract information.
There is an unsurprising element of defense in many people interviewed. But there is also a considerable degree of frankness. Errors are repeatedly admitted; calculation errors are accepted.
The interviews give an idea of the few simple answers that could be found to many of these problems. Even supporting what many Remainers see as the original sin of David Cameron’s pledge to hold an exit referendum, recalling the political context in which this pledge was made, shows the narrowness of its options.
With Ukip on the rise, his own mutinous party on Europe and crisis after crisis in the eurozone, Mr Cameron was constantly on the defensive.
Raoul Ruparel, who would become Theresa May’s special adviser for Europe, told the think tank that “since Maastricht and the creation of the euro, the UK’s position has become increasingly difficult within the EU.
“It was always going to come to a tipping point at some point … I tend to think that even if Cameron had not made that promise, it was inevitable that a Tory prime minister would have done so in the future. not too far away. . “
Ultimately, if the Conservative Party wanted a referendum, its members could ensure that only one person who held a plebiscite would be named leader.
This 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 hold the Kingdom down. United in the EU. , as Cameron did, but to argue for the opposite outcome.
Sir Jonathan Faull, EU commissioner appointed by the UK at the time of the referendum, said “the 2015 election was obviously the turning point, with Cameron being elected by absolute majority and having made the pledge.
“From there, I thought it would be very difficult for him to escape his promise and that it would take a referendum.”
But once the referendum has taken place and the result has been to leave the EU, one of the striking things about the talks is how they confirm a Westminster and Whitehall loophole on Northern Ireland.
Philip Hammond, then in cabinet for six years and soon to 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 Ms. May or anyone at the top of the government.
The moment she realized what was at stake was’ like a lit light bulb, ‘said Hammond, and from there she believed that’ the problems in Northern Ireland would inevitably lead to the break-up of the Kingdom- United if we weren’t. capable of concluding an agreement with the European Union which has enabled us, in an efficient manner, to access the single market ”.
Sir Jonathan said: “The focus on Northern Ireland came far too late, despite warnings from me and others long ago that people should start to think very carefully about what would happen in Northern Ireland, especially if different parts of the UK voted differently. I wouldn’t say that we have thought through all of this.
Sir Ivan Rogers, UK permanent representative to the EU at the time of the referendum, said UK officials understood “long before the referendum, the centrality and immense difficulty of the [Irish] border issue ”and also that the Irish government would seek to include it in the first phase of the Withdrawal Agreement process, meaning that“ the other 26 would always support the Member State against the non-Member State ”.
But he said this point of view was not shared by the ministers and spads who came after the referendum.
Sir Ivan described the Irish diplomatic operation in Brussels as “far superior to Whitehall, which should give London some thought”.
Asked when she realized Northern Ireland was going to be the big deal, Ms May’s former deputy chief of staff Joanna Penn said in 2017: ‘I think I remember having said to someone, ‘Look, we’re almost there on the money and governance. We’ve had these big ranks and we think we need to find a place where we can sell it. All we have is Northern Ireland, but it will be fine. ”
Suddenly Northern Ireland disrupted everything, with DUP leader Arlene Foster humiliating Ms May last December over the attempt to agree on a regulatory alignment between NI and the EU.
However, it was Ms. Foster who ultimately backed the wrong horse. Mr Ruparel said that “those of us who attended know that ERG’s commitment to DUP has always been quite empty.
“I remember having a meeting with the DUP during the leadership race, we talked to them and we told them it was basically, ‘You know Boris is going to sell you,’ if that means a more distant relationship for the rest of the world. UK.
“They said, ‘Yes, we know, but we’ll take it as it comes.’ They also knew who they were going to sleep with. This is all a little weird. I think they thought they could put the kind of pressure they put, on Boris, on Theresa.
“I think they thought ERGs were their real friends. Ultimately, their biggest miscalculation was their confidence that their position would be defended in an election and that they would retain the power brokerage position they held.
Philip Rycroft, a senior official who ended up as permanent secretary in the Department for Exiting the European Union, said that “Northern Ireland and the governance of Northern Ireland have always been very complicated in Whitehall”.
He said bluntly: “The Whitehall I knew was good enough to look at some long-term trends like aging, shifting geopolitical balance of power, the rise of China.
“That’s what turns most of the people in Whitehall on… It’s quite amazing how little Whitehall understood his own country. I think that remains the case today, when it comes to the different elements that make up the UK.
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