Gove - ‘Brexit means we need to retool the government machine’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez July 29, 2019
Michael Gove, the Prime Minister’s de-facto deputy and leader on no-deal Brexit preparations, hints at change in the way Whitehall operates.

Image of Michael Gove

Michael Gove, who was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week, has hinted that big changes to the way Whitehall and government operate could be on the way, as a result of Brexit. 

Writing for the Sunday Times this weekend, Gove said that a no-deal Brexit is a “very real prospect” and that the UK must ensure that it is ready. 

Gove was chosen by the newly elected Prime Minister to spearhead that government’s preparations for leaving the EU, “come what may”. Johnson has said that the Withdrawal Agreement - in particular the controversial backstop - need to be scrapped and that a new deal needs to be done by the Brexit deadline of 31st October. 

The EU has said that it’s positioned hasn’t changed, that the Withdrawal Agreement is the only deal on the table and that whilst it wants the deal to be done, it is prepared for a no-deal. 

However, whilst Gove’s comments this weekend largely focused on preparing the public for a real possibility of no-deal, the article also pointed to some potentially interesting thinking about the way in which government operates. 

This comes off the back of a piece diginomica/government published last week, in which we highlighted some of the ideas of the Dominic Cummings, who ran the Vote Leave campaign and is now a special adviser to Borish Johnson. 

Cummings’ central argument - and his ambitions behind Brexit - are that the way in which Whitehall operates is broken, in that it doesn’t have the mechanisms for self-correction, largely operates by group-think, and is mostly speaking into a self-perpetuating void. He has spoken at length about changing the government and civil service system. 

A new vision

This context makes Gove’s statements this weekend particularly interesting. He said that planning for no-deal is now the government’s “No 1 priority” and that it is now accelerating preparations. 

Firstly, Gove said, this has meant putting funding in place - as “you cannot properly prepare for a change of this magnitude without the money to make it happen”. 

However, it’s the next bit that Gove highlights that could end up being particularly interesting. He says: 

Second, the government machine is being retooled for the task. I am an unabashed admirer of the many brilliant people in our civil service. I have worked with them in four departments as they have risen to huge challenges and driven change. They now know, along with every minister in the government, that delivering Brexit on time is the most pressing task before all of us.

Third, the cabinet secretary has created a new, unified, Whitehall structure to co-ordinate action across departments and accelerate decision-making.

A new Whitehall structure? That’s a bold statement - but unfortunately Gove didn’t provide much detail. He may have been referring to the new Brexit Cabinet committee, which will consist of a “tight” number of ministers and be charged by Gove. However, a new Whitehall structure sounds more radical than a Committee. 

Gove went on to say: 

Leaving the EU, and taking back control of our money, laws and trade, inevitably requires us to develop new systems, processes and ways of working. Outside the EU we can develop smarter ways of supporting our farmers, attracting new investment, generating technological breakthroughs and trading globally.

Delivering those new opportunities requires us to reshape government, change what happens at our borders and develop new models of regulation. That work is required whether or not we get the good free trade deal we all want, or have to leave without a deal at the end of October. Much of the work we are accelerating, to prepare for no deal, is work that is vital for any successful future outside the single market and customs union.

My take

Why is this important? I believe that those responsible for the future of the UK are signalling that there could be big changes ahead for the future of government institutions and the way it operates. That’s not not necessarily a bad thing - we have long argued for big change in Whitehall. However, the detail will be key. And whilst all eyes will be on the ‘big ideas’ behind Brexit, an opportunity will likely be made available for fundamental, albeit less headline grabbing, changes to be put through. Systemic changes. We are inferring a lot here, but it’s worth being aware of the subtle noises being made about this within Number 10 Downing Street. 

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