It has been nearly two months since Britain voted to leave the European Union but the government isn’t even close to being prepared to begin negotiating a Brexit.
Theresa May, who succeeded David Cameron as prime minister following the result of the June referendum — quickly set up two new departments to handle Britain’s withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc — the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) and the Department for International Trade (DIT).
But neither of these specialised departments can get to work on delivering a Brexit because both are massively understaffed, according to The Guardian.
The DExEU, which is headed by David Davis MP, has hired less than half of the number it had planned (110/250), while Liam Fox’s DIT has fewer than 100 negotiators despite wanting a team of over 500.
These rather embarrassing figures illustrate how leaving the EU is not just a huge political challenge, but a practical one too. It is a massive undertaking which demands a vast pool of experience and expertise — something Theresa May’s government is really struggling to get together.
The Times is reporting that legal experts and managerial consultants in the private sector are being offered roles in an attempt to fill the huge skill gaps which are so obvious in the ministries.
The problems don’t end there, though. The Institute for Government, a major think tank, has warned that these crucial departments will not be subject to sufficient scrutiny because the parliamentary committee which is being created to hold them to account will be too large and “crippled” by conflicting political interests.
The committee, which is being established to scrutinise Fox and Davis’ departments, is set to host a cross-party membership of around 30 MPs. Not only is this an unusually large committee, but the fact it will house a range of opinions on Brexit means its effectiveness could be undermined.
“Precedent tells us that parliamentary committees are most effective when they are able to scrutinise issues in a sustained manner, reach a consensus and then speak with one voice,” the Institute for Government’s Hannah White said.
“The larger they are, the more difficult this becomes. As views on Brexit are polarised, achieving consensus on the analysis of evidence and reaching agreed conclusions will be tricky in any case.”
What is even worse for May is that the practical difficulties facing the Brexit project are emerging against a backdrop of turf war between key Brexiteers in her own cabinet. Fox, a Brexit hardliner, allegedly upset foreign secretary and fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson by demanding a key part of the latter’s department be transferred to the DIT.
Sources within government told the Financial Times that the prime minister is “unimpressed with this sort of carrying on.”
With these developments in mind, it is no wonder why Davis’ pledge to invoke Article 50 as soon as January next year has been received with so much doubt. Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, a former Danish minister who oversaw Greenland’s departure from the EU, said last week a Brexit is an “enormous” task which will take “much longer” than three years.
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