14.In our April 2016 report on the implications of the referendum on EU membership for the UK’s role in the world, we described the FCO’s apparent lack of any contingency planning for a vote to leave the EU as “regrettable”.20 Since the referendum, the extent of the Government’s lack of preparation for a potential “leave” vote has become more evident. Asked to explain the FCO’s failure to establish the main challenges facing the UK after Brexit and to outline how the Department would address them, the Foreign Secretary said he did not “see the need” for such planning, even though it would typically plan for all possible eventualities before a general election.21 He told us:
I assure you it was not an oversight. Of course we discussed this question before the referendum campaign began—whether there should be contingency planning or not—and we concluded that it was not appropriate to carry out contingency planning, other than planning that was focused on the very immediate pressures that might come on the financial markets.22
15.The Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP, who was appointed by former Prime Minister David Cameron MP after the vote to lead a new Cabinet Office unit in charge of managing the Brexit negotiations (though he now no longer holds this post), defended the lack of pre-referendum planning by stating that no decisions could be made until a new Prime Minister was in place.23 He told us that the gap between the referendum and the appointment of a new Prime Minister would provide ample time for his unit to do the preparatory work necessary to facilitate the twin-track processes of leaving the EU and negotiating a new EU-UK relationship, including identifying gaps in civil service capacity, establishing a basis of key facts and outlining options for negotiations.24 Put to him that much of this work could have been done before the referendum, he said:
We are actually going to have a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet on 9 September. If you are asking the practical question, “Would it have been possible to pre-design the strategy for negotiation?” the answer is that as things have turned out it would not have been possible. I believe it is actually possible to do the work and preparation we are doing in the period between now and 9 September. It is hard work, but I think we can do it.25
16.It remains unclear how much of this work has been done to date. Mr Letwin MP could only tell us that “a good deal of work is already under way and has been for some time”, and acknowledged his inability to be more specific by offering to appear before the Committee at a later date when he would have more information.26 Similarly, asked on 12 July to outline the FCO’s specific plans for recruiting more trade specialists as a result of the outcome of the EU referendum, the Foreign Secretary could only state that the Government “are actively seeking to recruit trade specialists”, including “the brightest and best from Whitehall and the private sector”. He was unable to elaborate on how much this recruitment drive might cost or how quickly it might be implemented.27
17.In the light of the appointment of the new Prime Minister on 13 July, the previous Government’s confidence that basic planning for the practicalities of implementing Brexit could be undertaken at a leisurely pace after the vote now appears at best naïve and at worst negligent. However she chooses to organise the timing of the negotiations, the new Prime Minister and the various Government Departments that will be involved in the exit process need immediate access to a comprehensive base of information and a fully-equipped, well-prepared civil service team (or, at a minimum, an accurate assessment of how many experts will need to be recruited, in what fields and at what cost). The absence of any planning both for the key challenges and opportunities that the UK will now face and for the structures that will need to be put in place to manage them constitutes a major setback for the new Government in undertaking the complex and difficult task ahead. As journalist and lawyer David Allen Green recently wrote, referring to our session with Mr Letwin MP, “it is not so much that the UK Government does not have a plan for Brexit—it does not even know what is to go into a plan.”28 The new administration has been left to play catch-up.
18.We agree with the recent report of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy which concluded that the Government’s failure to engage in comprehensive planning for a potential Brexit before the referendum “indicated the prioritisation of political interests above national security.”29 It is highly regrettable that we appear to have been more pro-active than the Government in identifying the most urgent challenges facing UK foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of the decision, as outlined in our April 2016 report. Indeed, the former Prime Minister’s glib response to a question in the Chamber referring to our report suggested that he had either not read it or not absorbed its key elements.30
19.The previous Government’s considered view not to instruct key Departments including the FCO to plan for the possibility that the electorate would vote to leave the EU amounted to gross negligence. It has exacerbated post-referendum uncertainty both within the UK and amongst key international partners, and made the task now facing the new Government substantially more difficult.
20.The lack of contingency planning inevitably means that the Government’s plans are tentative and just emerging. We intend to examine these at the earliest available opportunity, including how the Government plans to consult other interested parties in the UK.
20 Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2015-16, The Implications of the Referendum on EU Membership for the UK’s Role in the World, HC 545, para 33
28 David Allen Green, “David Davis, Brexit and the shapelessness of things to come”, Financial Times, 14 July 2016
29 Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, First Report of Session 2016-17, HC 153, para 92
30 HC Deb, 29 June 2016, cols 310-311 [Commons Chamber]
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20 July 2016