The Guardian view on the Downing Street machine: unfit for Brexit

Boris Johnson has surrounded himself with people who are more interested in campaigns and settling scores than government

Boris Johnson
‘Mr Johnson must have known by March that 2020 would be dominated by the coronavirus. He could have extended the Brexit transition.’ Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images
‘Mr Johnson must have known by March that 2020 would be dominated by the coronavirus. He could have extended the Brexit transition.’ Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 05.57 EST

In just over a month, Britain will enter new customs arrangements with the European Union, and the border is not ready. An apparatus of checks and permissions must be erected. Hauliers and logistics experts complain that there is not even a usable government handbook explaining how the system should work, let alone a working system.

The changes happen regardless of whether a free trade deal is done in Brussels in the coming days. They are a function of the decision to leave the single market and the customs union, and that hard-Brexit model was chosen by Theresa May in 2016. It was made harder still when Boris Johnson became prime minister. It is baked into the terms on which EU withdrawal became a legal fact in January. None of this would come as a surprise to a responsible government, run by someone adept at strategic thinking, with a grasp of basic management. But the country is led by Boris Johnson.

The pandemic helps explain why Brexit preparation has been neglected, but it is not an excuse. Mr Johnson must have known by March that 2020 would be dominated by the coronavirus. He could have extended the Brexit transition in June. Instead he let that deadline slip, insisting that a deal was possible over the summer. Now he will be lucky to get agreement by the end of November, after which point he is out if time. December could yet be a month of panic and bitter recrimination.

A no-deal scenario makes it likelier that Mr Johnson would make good his threat to ignore the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement – and that would put him at odds with the new US president-elect. Joe Biden takes his Irish ancestry seriously and has indicated displeasure at Mr Johnson’s cavalier attitude towards the Good Friday agreement. Fear of getting on the wrong side of an incoming White House administration will be a factor tilting the prime minister towards compromise in Brussels.

But that requires a grasp of international realpolitik that is not a prominent trait among enthusiasts for Brexit. It is relevant in that regard that Downing Street is largely controlled by veterans of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. It is telling, too, how bad that team, led by Dominic Cummings, has turned out to be at governing. Lee Cain, director of Downing Street communications and a key ally of Mr Cummings, resigned on Wednesday in the midst of a tawdry power struggle that showcases the chaotic inadequacy of the No 10 operation.

Recurrent features are bullying and insularity. Dissenting opinions are despised; those who hold them are treated as mortal enemies. The approach follows the campaign model that fails to distinguish between message control and policy delivery. It is a zero-sum ethos that measures success by a body count of crushed rivals. There is no version of Brexit that can be safely handled that way.

Leaving the EU is a complex economic and geostrategic shift that would place a terrible administrative burden on the most competent government. Mr Johnson is not well suited temperamentally to that task, but he could at least employ people who are.

The current Downing Street operation is unfit for the challenge it faces, and as a result the country is unready. It is not too late for Mr Johnson to make drastic changes to salvage something of a reputation for elementary administrative capability, but time is running out.

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