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

Have you tried turning it off and on again?


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“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