18th February 2021
Compare and contrast two government statements.
The first – which was released to the media though not (it seems) published on the government website – is from just before Christmas 2019.
The statement read:
“The Department for Exiting the European Union will be wound up once the UK leaves the EU on the 31 January.
“DExEU staff have been spoken to today. We are very grateful for all their work and we will help everyone to find new roles.”
The notion was that, now Brexit had been ‘delivered’ there was no need for a cabinet-level minister to be dedicated to Brexit.
But Brexit had not been delivered.
Brexit had hardly begun.
For as this blog as previously averred – and as I set out in this Financial Times video – Brexit will be a negotiation without end.
This is because in part of the enormity of the issues that still need to be settled – but it also because of the deliberate structure of the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement.
Both of the Brexit agreements create institutions and frameworks for ongoing negotiations, and negotiations, and negotiations.
That the ‘delivery’ of Brexit will be an ongoing matter for substantial and intense engagement with the European Union is a feature of the withdrawal arrangements, not a bug.
The content and form of the exit agreements are not about once-and-for-all and one-bound-and-we-are-free.
And so we come to the second government announcement, from yesterday.
Regardless of the personalities involved – Frost is, in effect, taking over from Michael Gove as the cabinet minister responsible for Brexit, and Gove is a politician many have very strong opinions about – this is a sensible and welcome appointment for four reasons.
First, it shows the government has realised that the task and tasks ahead for Brexit are such that it needs a dedicated minister at cabinet level (even if not, strictly speaking, a secretary of state).
Indeed, the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is likely to be a far more visible and prominent feature of public policy after Brexit than before.
And the cabinet office – and thereby Gove – has many other responsibilities.
Second, it indicates that the government has realised the folly of creating a special pop-up department for the purpose of dealing with Brexit and is instead working with the grain of the planks of Whitehall than against them.
The cabinet office has many faults, but it at least has the departmental weight, and the expertise and (now) institutional memory on Brexit, that an entirely new department would lack.
Third, as Frost was the United Kingdom’s negotiator of the trade and cooperation agreement, there is a benefit for him also being in place for the negotiations that are to take place within the framework of the agreement.
The many delicate compromises of the agreement, and the agreed processes established to address hundreds (if not thousands) of technical issues (as well as various big ones) will not be – or should not be – news to him.
And fourth, the appointment regularises the position of Frost in the government – making him a formal minister so as to end his limbo state as a politicised adviser and ‘sherpa’.
As such he will be responsible to parliament directly.
Not all government decisions – even with Brexit – are calamitous.
Sometimes the government of the United Kingdom can surprise you and do something (eventually) that makes sense.
Of course: there should have been in place a dedicated cabinet minister for Brexit all along – and, if so, various problems over the last year may not have the effects that they did.
But the primary significance of the appointment is that it implies an official acknowledgement that the real work of Brexit is still to come.
If so, perhaps Brexit reality is finally seeping in.
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