Whitehall union chief laments Theresa May's lack of ‘political courage’ on Brexit

Posted On: 
29th December 2016

Ministers lack the “political courage” to admit how complex Brexit will be, according to the head of the civil servants' union.

FDA general secretary Dave Penman said it was “pure politics” that is forcing Theresa May to downplay the difficulties of leaving the EU.

He also said that Whitehall faced a “bumpy ride” as the UK quits the EU while dealing with other priorities, and called for more resources for the civil service to cope with the added workload.

It comes after warnings from the Institute for Government and others over the challenge posed by Brexit for the civil service.

The Prime Minister has promised to trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017, as government departments wrestle to prepare for the negotiations to come.


Mr Penman suggested Mrs May was leading a government that could not speak openly about the task presented by Brexit.

“It is pure politics that is defining the Brexit debate and forcing May to say this is not a big, difficult job, and it is all in hand,” he told the Guardian.

“Ministers lack the political courage to admit how complex and time-consuming this will be.

“When anyone pops their head above the parapet – former permanent secretaries, ex-cabinet secretaries, the Institute for Government – and says this is going to take a long time and it’s complex, they are immediately shot down and accused of betraying the will of the people.

“The politics around Brexit are the biggest risk to Brexit. The government is clearly in a situation where they are trying to deny the complexity of it.”

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced extra money for the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade at his Autumn Statement, the latter of which will receive an extra £79.4m over the next four years.

Other departments in Whitehall however face budget cuts under plans set out in last year’s Spending Review - before Britain voted to quit the European Union.


Mr Penman said the Civil Service was used to working under tight financial restrictions, but argued the “unique complexity” of Brexit would place it under strain.

"The civil service is either going to have to be given more resources to deal with Brexit and its usual work or it will have to change its priorities," he said.

"And government doesn't want to admit to either."

He added: "The civil service will have to effectively run a Formula One car whilst building next year's car at the same time. It can be done, but it's going to be a bumpy ride."

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "The civil service is fully focused on delivering the government's commitment to leave the EU and get the very best deal for the UK.

"We are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across government to make this happen."