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Departure of UK’s ambassador to the EU and strong economy emboldens Brexiteers

Sat, Jan 7, 2017, 12:12

Chris Johns

It is difficult to see anything stopping the Brexiteers getting what they want: the clean and complete exit.




Anyone that ever worked in a modern corporation knows how the ex-UK ambassador to the EU felt. All CEOs and prime ministers say the same thing: “We welcome challenge and dissent.”

Everyone who works for them knows this to be pure delusion. Whether or not political leaders or executives are self-aware enough to be aware of their own fantasies, their subordinates learn quickly that to challenge the boss is usually a career-damaging, if not career-ending, move.

An even worse corporate sin, if that is possible, is to be labelled “negative”. It’s not good enough to avoid criticising the chief executive. You have to support, with conviction, all of his ideas. Mere silence will single you out as ‘not one of us’.


Cheerleading is an important part of the corporate code. This is not something you will learn at business school but will be imparted to you by osmosis as you get nearer the executive suite. Nobody ever tells you about these behavioural rules. Indeed, if they are ever pointed out there is an explosion of indignation, denial and faux hurt feelings.

One of the unwritten, but most important, chapters of the Irish banking crisis is how the culture of our financial institutions strangled dissent, silenced criticism and made sure that senior executives were surrounded only by cheerleaders who supported each and every bad lending decision.

External commentators complained about not being listened to but little attention has ever been focused on internal disagreements, such as they were.

The British civil service prides itself on its unflinching willingness to tell the truth to power. But anyone who has ever walked the corridors of Whitehall, or simply watched reruns of Yes Minister, knows that the skill most necessary for career progression is the ability to say yes, convincingly, while at the same time meaning no. British politicians leave office muttering about the ways in which the civil service must have thwarted their best policy ideas but with only the vaguest notion of how this happened. This is the true genius of the successful civil servant.



The most extraordinary resignation of the UK’s ambassador to the EU was immediately followed up by a whole chorus of ex-civil service heavyweights writing and tweeting about their profound shock and dismay. Jonathan Powell, ex-chief of staff at 10 Downing Street, for example, laid bare the key questions facing the current government: stay in the single market or not, stay in the customs union or not and is there to be a transitional deal?

The suspicion voiced by Powell and all the other bigwigs is that Theresa May has yet to make her mind up about any of this. And is unlikely to be able to make an informed choice given that nobody seems willing or able to speak up. Other than to say “just leave”.

The unspoken fear is that May’s real problem is not lack of decisiveness but an unwillingness to confront her real problem: it’s either rock hard Brexit or be devoured by her own party’s extremists. Every single choice about Brexit boils down to either the hardest of departures or a compromise with Europe of one kind or another. And any hint of compromise enrages Ukip, the Mail and the Telegraph and all the other inhabitants of the British political lunatic asylum.

How does a civil servant advise a prime minister to pursue a path – compromise – that will end her career? It is the most exquisite of dilemmas. It isn’t the sort of thing they teach you at Oxford or Cambridge. Sucking up to the boss may normally be the route to greatness but just occasionally it becomes obvious that it isn’t going to work this time. And there is no way that a soft Brexit can be engineered, in Yes Minister fashion, while the prime minister is temporarily distracted.


So, with nobody willing to advise to the contrary – if, indeed, anyone in power is willing to listen – it seems natural to assume that a hard Brexit is now the most likely outcome. Many insiders seem to have come to this conclusion. It could come as early as this year with some diplomats speculating that the choices are so stark, the negotiating gaps between the UK and Europe so wide, that talks will irretrievably break down soon after they start. Britain will then just leave and revert to WTO tariffs. Or pretty much the same thing happens, but not until two years’ time.

None of this is inevitable. But the one thing that is making it more and more likely is, ironically, the behaviour of the UK economy. As it goes from strength to strength, defying most predictions to the contrary, the determination of the Brexiteers just deepens.

They now have – preliminary – data to back up their fundamental belief that Brexit will be good for the economy. Armed and emboldened with this, it is difficult to see anything stopping them getting what they want: the clean and complete exit.