I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and
Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
(from The Elephant’s Child by Rudyard Kipling)
Recently the Government published a White Paper The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union. In the absence of any other weighty official tome this must be the culmination of efforts since the Referendum (23rd June 2016) of the best brains in the Government (including ministers and the civil service) to explain our departure from the European Union (EU). Reassuringly the first words in the Foreword our Prime Minister Mrs May states “We do not approach these negotiations expecting failure, but anticipating success.” Now, how does this White Paper measure up to providing us, the Electorate, with any assurance or better still actual proof that our (highly competent) Government is on top of the job of delivering that much anticipated success?
Anyone wishing to place an order or contract with HM Government to deliver a successful and attractive Brexit will be disappointed, not necessarily by what the White Paper says (which are goals or aspirations that could be offered by anyone anxious to please) , but by what it omits. Being 77 pages in length counting blank and half pages, it omits a great deal that should be there to provide confidence. Here are summarised just a few missing items:
Executive Summary – whilst actually a nice to have feature, it is nevertheless, helpful within a few pages to read a summary of what is described later in greater detail.
Background Understanding – there is little indication that the Government actually knows anything about what is involved in delivering Brexit or understanding of the nature of the EU beast. The White Paper does not contain any analysis, for example, of the task of delivering Brexit, or any constraints or limitations, assumptions, issues, problems and priorities or order of precedence; these are not just glossed over, but absent altogether. Our present situation, as a country vis-à-vis the EU, in a wide variety of activities or areas is not described or even outlined. Consequently we (or anyone else) cannot see how big or complex a task it is to unbundle us from the EU across many areas, let alone have any indication of costs or timescales, or even if escape is realistic and achievable.
Progress to date – instead of lauding or over-egging progress and the CVs or track records of key players in the Brexit Delivery Team, the White Paper is silent. Surely any progress made in ‘getting our team’s act together’ and undertaking preliminary activities, such as planning, background research, ‘getting up to speed’, is a suitable subject for self-congratulations?
Definitions – the existing confusion, if not ignorance, of many (including in the media and corridors of power) regarding what the multitude of EU and Brexit related terms actually mean is not cleared up. Hence we cannot know if the Government understands the true nature and subtlety of everything from the Common Commercial Policy via the Customs Union, European Economic Area (aka Single Market) etc. to the World Trade Organisation. It is easy to envisage in negotiations the various parties using the same terms but ascribing different meanings to them.
Descriptions of ‘good’ – the White Paper provides vague aspirations without fleshing out specifics and hence we don’t know what ‘good’ actually looks like, across many subjects, and it can be interpreted in different ways now and in the future. Nobody (including EU negotiators) knows what our Government actually wants in detail allowing agreements of substance to be made. An unfit for purpose, vague or incomplete deal with the EU can under these circumstances be presented as a great success. Mistakes made now can be cast in stone for the duration of the Brexit process and the less than competent individuals responsible can remain in job and unaccountable.
Description of the ‘How’ – there is nothing on how anything will be achieved, including strategy or plans, programme of activities, critical paths, timescales and deadlines, estimates of resources required and description of their competencies, organisation charts showing responsibilities, order of priorities, flow charts and dependencies, reporting and accountability frameworks etc. The project management (and associated methodology) to be followed to achieve success is apparently to ‘muddle through’ confident that each bridge can be crossed as it comes and the necessary resources and negotiated decisions will appear when needed.
Overall Conclusions – Whilst this document does actually satisfy the requirements for the definition of a White Paper (setting out proposals for future legislation), it falls far short of being a blueprint or plan for achieving a successful Brexit. Aspirations for Brexit, then, without detailed and realistic plans and preparations for their accomplishment are untrustworthy. Many complex projects start well but later go pear-shaped. It is less usual for something complex, with tight timescales to start poorly and turn out well; ‘fail to plan and you plan to fail’. Another outcome (which may be lurking somewhere in a Machiavellian background) – after expenditure of much effort, decide it is far too difficult, risky or some other excuse and stop where we currently are still inside or under the control of the EU.
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