Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Secret Civil Servant: Even 17th century IT won't stop Britain's Brexit negotiators

Have you tried turning it off and on again?

“It’s frozen again. Why does it keep freezing?” “Have you tried turning it off and on?”

In many ways, round three of negotiations ended as the previous two had done. With Eurocrats from both sides packed into dark recesses of the Berlaymont building trying to work the coal-driven, dot-matrix mimeograph: the secure computer into which the progress agreed over the course of the negotiations has to be transcribed.

It’s a tough enough task to agree the wording in a way that appeases both sides without having to contend with 17th century IT. It would be less onerous to recite the progress as an epic poem, in Esperanto. For the more than 100 officials gathered in Brussels, it was a joy to behold.

“It’s still frozen.”

“Are you sure there’s an ‘S’ in Ireland?”

“Just hit it with a stick Gustaaf.”

“Perhaps try closing down the Tin Tin homepage for a minute.”

“Eat merde, you cyber pig.”

“We’ll do the European Investment Bank, and some of pensions, and perhaps even Barnier’s bowl of blue smarties, but we did not agree to pay for the little flags in the sandwiches. Delete that immediately.”

“It’s frozen.”

“What about turning it off and on again?”

I presume that the rationale must be that if the hardware is from the 1980s, then it will take the skills of a 1980s KGB agent to successfully hack it. And apart from the entirety of the current Russian government, there aren’t many of them around. So we’re in the clear.

Across the board, the UK position has tightened, and is coherent and credible, not that you’d be able to tell from the coverage. It is not surprising this hasn’t gained much headway in the media. “UK makes increasingly sensible technocratic pitch on difficult issues” is never going to attract as much attention as how Septimus Prime of the Rees-Mogg stable takes his breakfast pheasant.

Senior figures on both sides were seen to be visibly upset by the end of the talks. This sadness, and in some cases, tears, were interpreted as sorrow at the dawning realisation of the UK abandoning the European experiment, a trusted partner walking away, a period of shared history on the cusp of divergence.

Or it could be simply be the prospect of another 18 months on the FisherPrice EuroAtari 3000. It may also be what drove a collection of cross-government special advisers to get absolutely spadded on weapons-grade Belgian lager. Who knows. Either way, if the rest of the continent does business like this, Britain should not fear its new bold trading place in the world. They’ll absolutely lap up the Spinning Jenny. 

European Commission, parting is such sweet sorrow. But never mind. We’ll be back for another go in a week. 

As every experienced civil servant knows, the way to respond to crises is to move some people around, disband certain teams, and create new ones. If it’s an issue of National Importance, it may even warrant The Production Of An Updated Organogram*. The last few weeks have been no different.

Following the the departure of DExEU’s Permanent Secretary to No 10, and the PM’s address in Florence, the government’s flagship Brexit departments have gone into crisis mode. The announcement of a likely transitional period, the best-kept secret in Westminster, means big trouble for the Department for International Trade.

It may limit what can be done, and means we may have to put a good bit of what we’ve already done straight into the shredder. It may therefore be time for a bit of rebranding. The Department For Thinking About International Trade, In The Future, has a nice ring to it. Or DFTAITITF for short.

In Oliver Robbins, DExEU will lose the services of a colossus. The word on the street is that by taking advice in house, the Brexit department is being sidelined. “Sure, just go down there and play with your Directives, there’s a good girl. That one is your favourite isn’t it? Look at her. She just loves 2000/13. The labelling one. Of course you’re in charge. Of course you are. No, I have no idea why your phones aren’t plugged in any more.”   

With his move and the reported attrition rate amongst more junior staff it may be time to create a new department to help specifically manage the exodus. The Department for Exiting The Department for Exiting the European Union, perhaps.

Designed to provide a shot in the arm to the whole process, the events of Florence may have left the two departments needing a latter-day Miss Nightingale to get off the life support machine.

Somebody fire up the EuroAtari, I can feel an Organogram coming on. 

* For those who are unaware, an Organogram is a staff chart. It is pronounced Organo-gram. Never Organ-ogram. The last person to pronounce it Organ-ogram was immediately redeployed to the Falkland Islands. 

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Liam Fox probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”