Theresa May has ordered every Cabinet minister to come up with a personal blueprint for Brexit amid concerns that civil servants are trying to frustrate Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The Prime Minister will demand action plans from each colleague about how their department can make Brexit work at a meeting at Chequers, her country retreat, this week.
Mrs May has challenged each minister – more than three quarters of whom campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU – to identify Brexit opportunities in their areas of responsibility.
It comes as senior government sources privately complained that pro-EU civil servants who are jealous of the new department are trying to frustrate the work of Brexit ministers. One senior insider said civil servants were miffed at having to help take the UK out of the EU, adding: A lot of these people are institutionally wedded to the status quo.
Lord O’Donnell, the former Cabinet secretary, added to fears of a stitch-up by pro-EU civil servants by warning Brexit was not inevitable and that Britain could end up remaining in a reformed EU. The Prime Minister will tell her Cabinet at the meeting on Wednesday that at the top of her in-tray is how to make a success of Brexit and the opportunities for the UK.
The meeting will allow the ministers to discuss the next steps in the negotiations, No 10 sources said, as Mrs May attempts to give momentum to Britain’s decision to leave the EU on June 23.
The meeting is being held days before Mrs May flies to China for this weekend’s G20 meeting of world leaders. Her aides said she would use the chance to highlight the wealth of opportunities that will arise from Brexit and allow them to discus mutually beneficial trade relationships in the future.
The moves come as government sources blamed officials in the Treasury and the Foreign Office for frustrating the early days of the new Department for Exiting the European Union. The source blamed jealousy among officials for negative stories about the workings of the new department. One claimed that staff had been forced to hold meetings in a branch of Starbucks.
Another said there were just 40 officials at the department when in fact there are more than 150. There are also concerns that the new department has been forced to base itself across two offices – 9 Downing Street and 70 Whitehall.
It emerged that Liam Fox, the Trade Secretary, and Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, held a clear-the-air meeting last week after The Sunday Telegraph disclosed that they were feuding over who controls Britain’s foreign policy. The source said the new department offered huge opportunities for civil servants, saying: If you do well there you have made your career.
The calibre of officials coming there is extremely impressive. I think there may well be some resistance possibly from the higher echelons in the Foreign Office about seeing them depart. A lot of these people will come from the FCO.
The source added: The Prime Minister has decreed a departmental structure which is different to what was there before. Everybody should respect that and work within that structure. Lord Kerslake, who as Sir Bob Kerslake was head of the Civil Service under David Cameron, said any problems were likely to be frustrations and teething issues.
He told The Sunday Telegraph: Of course they have had to readjust, it has been a traumatic experience. [But] one of the things the Civil Service does – and does well – is to realign, and with quite considerable pace. So any suggestion it will not recognise Government intent – and respond accordingly – is unfair. Tory MPs urged strong action against any officials who were frustrating the work.
Steve Baker, the Tory MP who chaired the influential Conservatives for Britain group before the referendum, said: Any official working to oppose our exit from the EU should be summarily fired.
If necessary, emergency legislation should be passed to make it possible. However, an aide to Mr Davis, the minister in charge of the new Brexit department, said he was not aware of any problems, everybody is quite clear on the remit. This department is in the lead on EU matters.
A Foreign Office minister added: We are not frustrating anything. Brexit means Brexit – we have got to make it work. It is full steam ahead. Nobody is trying to delay.
Lord O’Donnell, who was Cabinet secretary between 2005 and 2011, said Britain leaving the EU is not inevitable because of the length of time it will take to leave.
The peer said there was no rush for Mrs May to start the two year negotiation process and that by the time it happened the EU might have reformed into a broader, more loosely aligned group … that the UK is happy being a member of.
Mrs May’s meeting will also look ahead to October’s party conference, with nearly 50,000 new members joining the party since she became Prime Minister. One aide said: There has been a record breaking number of registrations for conference – suggesting that while Labour tears itself apart with splits and break-off groups, the Conservative Party is more united than ever and ready to get on with the work of governing for the whole country.
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