“It is shocking that some ministers are putting civil servants like me on the hook for political ends. Every day there is some fresh claim in the press, backed up by people who should (and perhaps really do) know better, that we must accept whatever outrageous terms we are offered by an intransigent EU because we are not prepared for no deal and it would be a disaster. This line is pushed by Remainer Cabinet ministers trying to scare us into swallowing the Withdrawal Agreement, and their friends campaigning for a second referendum, the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd’s brother Roland prominent among them.
“This is Project Fear Mark (I think) III, which claims that we will all “crash out” over the white cliffs of Dover into the Channel at 11pm on March 29 2019 and wake up to certain chaos and doom. If true, it would be a terrible indictment not only of this Government but also of our Civil Service. And it is absolutely untrue, as anyone who, like me, has been involved in Brexit work for the past two-and-a-half years in Whitehall will tell you.
“It is rather shocking that not only the Remainer media but even members of the Government are putting civil servants on the hook for their own political purposes, by implying that they have failed in their clear duty to prepare for eventualities. It may be true that certain civil servants are biased in favour of the EU. That is because continued EU membership means certainty, and civil servants love certainty. It makes planning one’s family commitments, work-life balance and daily commute a lot easier. Strong and stable. Dull and secure. Plodding and punctilious. The opposite of challenging, new and rewarding.
“But that very bias towards certainty and balance and horror of disorder makes civil servants highly conscious of their duty to keep both their school run and the country operating smoothly. They would not sit back and allow the British public to be threatened by economic paralysis. Nor have they. The frisson of horror evoked by such a prospect would shake the corridors of power from Westminster to Brussels. A disorderly no-deal Brexit on March 29 is not compatible with the principles of good government in which the Civil Service takes justified pride. It handles seismic change in much the same way as it handles a decision on the design of a new online form or whether to allow pot plants in the staff kitchen – in a very deliberate, considered, consultative manner.
“Without a Project Fear, Remainers would need to think up convincing arguments for staying in the EU. Of course no-deal preparations have been made. Very detailed plans have been proposed, assessed, analysed to death and finally agreed by working groups and steering groups and directors’ boards and cross-Whitehall talking shops. They have then been sent to ministers for approval. And they are now being executed. To claim otherwise is to equate the United Kingdom with a tinpot dictatorship where officials tote machine guns and use pot plants for target practice. And we would never allow that.
“It is even more ridiculous that this claim of unpreparedness is still being parroted across the media and by MPs when some of the most crucial elements of no-deal planning have now been made public . In a very surreptitious way, of course, almost as though the Government didn’t want even its own backbenchers to know. While things were hotting up in the Commons over the Withdrawal Agreement before Parliament rose for Christmas, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs made important no-deal customs regulations and wrote to businesses advising them on the new procedures for import and export from March 29, with links to guidance and even to application forms for grants to help with IT upgrades and staff training. Just-in-time importers are also being advised to register now as Trusted Traders, in order to benefit from simplified customs facilitation.
“Job advertisements for customs warehouse officers at an inland clearance site in Milton Keynes have gone live, too. This is so that lorries can be diverted away from the Channel ports for targeted checks. The European Union and various member states have also announced bilateral arrangements for euro clearing and financial services, for visa-free tourist travel, and for aviation rights.
“The French have installed high-tech freight scanners at Calais to keep trade and tourism flowing. Open Skies agreements have been signed with our most important aviation partners, the US and Canada. Further agreements are planned. And we have just agreed the transition of a trade agreement with Switzerland, which will allow businesses to carry on trading freely after our country leaves the European Union. There are hundreds of such no-deal plans across all government departments just waiting for the green light from ministers to be made public. There are more bilateral “managed WTO” agreements on the horizon and a rapid acceleration of work in the Civil Service to deliver a no-deal Brexit.
“An enormous effort by thousands of hard-working civil servants has been made to ensure that if we leave the EU without a deal, “crashing out” over a “cliff edge” is simply not going to be an option, and it is purely a political decision not to make this clear to the public and nervous backbench MPs. But if the Government was to be frank with Parliament and the country, what justification would be left for its disastrous Withdrawal Agreement? What would Remainers do without a Project Fear? They would need to think up convincing positive arguments for staying in the EU, something that has so far proved beyond them”.
The author is a serving civil servant engaged in preparing the UK for a Brexit on WTO rules after March 29 2019. She therefore writes under a pseudonym.