SECRET CIVIL SERVANT: We can see the perfect storm brewing over coronavirus and Brexit
PUBLISHED: 13:28 28 May 2020 | UPDATED: 14:28 28 May 2020
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Those working in Whitehall can see Covid and a chaotic Brexit are about to combine with devastating consequences, says THE SECRET CIVIL SERVANT.
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The Perfect Storm has been one of my go-to movies during lockdown. In a key scene hundreds of miles away from the socio-economic tragedy about to unfold, a harried and bespectacled meteorologist (looking very much the archetypal faceless civil servant) peers at a display of two hulking weather systems whose improbable union is the movie’s eponymous villain.
The weatherman’s growing horror at this “disaster of epic proportions” is tempered by schoolboy wonder when he realises that most people in his line of work never get to see something so uniquely terrible. “Mate”, I mutter at the screen, “I feel you”.
Sadly, we never hear from him again – the true drama is unfolding elsewhere, among a doomed group of tunnel-visioned patriots – all men, led by a ridiculously virile George Clooney – with a suicidal obsession with fish.
Hollywood, eh? In real life, of course, we know that those at the UK’s helm have the luxury of escaping to the lifeboats long before the rest of us face the fury of a likely Covid-19 second wave that the end of the Brexit transition phase turns into a tsunami.
This appalling prospect is right now haunting the tens of thousands of Zoom-bothering civil servants now working from home on the government’s Covid-19 response.
Many of them, like me, have experienced enough of Operation Yellowhammer and other toxic Brexit guest ales to suspect that the UK public has yet to fully realise that, while Europe starts to recover from the impact of the virus, Brexit Britain is enthusiastically heading straight back out into a man-made hurricane.
We saw what a few days of initial lockdown panic did to supermarket shelves in March, and shudder to imagine what a more structural disruption is almost certain to do in January 2021, even if the virus doesn’t return.
I don’t claim to speak for all 400,000-odd civil servants in the UK. But I can tell you that all of us – including every scientist on the government payroll – are governed by exactly the same code compelling us to base our recommendations to ministers on the best available evidence.
It is now abundantly clear that what that evidence is screaming for is a long extension of the Brexit transition period. So far, that evidence is falling on deaf ears.
More pathetic mewlings of a few recalcitrant Whitehall Remoaners? Hardly. Former civil service leaders have called for it. The Scottish government wants it. Leading academics say it’s a no-brainer. Even leading Tory party donors and the Financial Times think it’s a good idea.
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And although eminent Brexitologist Chris Grey has pointed to dissent at the top table, what prevails is the distinctly fishy line from Michael Gove: an extension would hamper the UK’s recovery efforts. No, me either.
The mood of the British public may yet play a decisive role. Last month, a YouGov poll reported that 56% of adults supported an extension to the Brexit transition period. Other polls claim this figure is closer to two thirds.
It’s this hardening of public opinion – not the weight of evidence, and certainly not the arguments of civil servants – that will ultimately will carry the day, just as it did in 2016.
So, I’ll make two predictions. First, after the obligatory Benny Hill-style carousel of brinkmanship designed to keep Brexiteer torpedoes out of the water, the Brexit transition period indeed will be delayed for at least a year.
Sound unlikely? Look, civil servants know better than anyone how hard it is sometimes for our politicians to admit mistakes or doubt – it’s partly why the prime minister and the manly members of the quad (unlike their female Scottish, Danish and German counterparts) have struggled to communicate clearly or consistently either about Brexit or coronavirus.
In fact, the recent gerrymandering of ‘the science’ to fit the message suggests a more superstitious reason why UK ministers want to keep three fridge-widths from the scientists in the briefing room: what if changing one’s mind in the light of contradictory evidence is contagious?
Still, after the PM’s panicky volte-face on the NHS surcharge, barely a day or so after defending it to the hilt in the House of Commons, there is hope. Another U-turn on the Brexit transition isn’t unthinkable, especially if it’s spun and rebadged as the result of more ‘listening’ and ‘showing true leadership’ – or if the Lib Dem’s rumoured plans for a new bill manages to somehow force the government’s hand.
The fact is, the vast majority of my Whitehall colleagues welcome any disruption of any stage of the sleazy symbiosis between the coronavirus and Brexit narratives. Stage 1: the breezy confidence that not even George Clooney in his pomp would dare attempt. Stage 2: the tumescent flummery about British pluck, our ‘Blitz spirit’ and common sense when reality intrudes. Stage 3: the sulky and flaccid descent into revisionist arse-covering as the public inquiries threaten to hove into view.
Holding away over all that is the over-mastering, Orwellian desire of a certain D. Cummings to control the narrative even as the ship continues to take on water. Take Back Control, Control the Virus – even Drive to Durham – might be effective three-word slogans but in the long-term they won’t put plus ça change out of business.
Which reminds me, none of this has escaped the notice of our cousins in Europe, who will have detected the links between Brexit, Covid-19 and the peculiarly English conviction – nicely illustrated by the tone of our VE Day celebrations – that winning is more important than working together. Not great mood music for the fraught weeks of negotiation before the June 30 deadline for extending the Brexit transition.
My second prediction might out me as an optimist whose sense of perspective has been ruined by watching too many movies during lockdown: that the inevitable public inquiries into the government’s handling of Brexit and Covid-19 will – eventually – lead us to create far more mature relationships with experts, expertise and the truth.
Given the long-term threats that this government’s exceptionalism poses to our lives, jobs and the very fabric of public discourse, we really can’t afford anything less. And time is running out.
The author is a serving civil servant who writes under the pseudonym “The Civil Servant” and tweets at @TheCivilSavant
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