Whitehall shames itself with lack of Leave plan

Christian May
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Treasury was underprepared for Brexit
A senior Treasury official said the civil service had not fully prepared for a Brexit scenario (Source: Getty)

The Treasury is one of the three ‘great offices of state’ – dominating the machinery of government and sitting alongside the Home Office and the Foreign Office in terms of prestige, power and pedigree.

Throughout all of Whitehall its patronage is yearned for and its wrath feared. Simply put, it is the nerve centre of the British state, unrivalled in political prominence and muscle.

The officials, economists and policy specialists that sit within its 19th century walls acquaint themselves with every corner of government activity.

It is therefore breathtaking to hear, as we did yesterday from the Treasury’s top civil servant, that the department was fundamentally unprepared for a vote to leave the European Union.

The permanent secretary, Tom Scholar, told MPs on the Public Accounts Committee that “the government did not produce an alternative desired end point for the relationship between the UK and the EU.” This is Whitehall-speak for “we assumed Britain would vote to Remain and so didn’t make any contingency plans.”

No Brexit strategy exists because Treasury officials never wrote one.

The only official work undertaken by the department was to produce analysis on the long term economic impact of Brexit which was derided as masterclass in statistical manipulation.

Government spokespeople insisted throughout the campaign that no contingency planning was being undertaken. To admit otherwise would, in the minds of political strategists, be an admission that Brexit was possible.

Many commentators assumed that this was just message discipline among the politicians, and that some corner of the civil service would of course be planning for an alternative political outcome.

That’s what civil servants are supposed to do, after all.

But yesterday the Treasury’s top man came clean and admitted that the government really was starting from scratch here. The best it’s been able to pull together since the vote is a kind of think-tank, run by the cerebral Oliver Letwin.

The lack of any proper planning can only be seen as a dereliction of duty by a government that put its head in the sand as the country inched towards a Leave vote.

Whoever our next Prime Minister is, she’s going to have to grab the civil service by the scruff of its neck and shake it out of complacency.

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