When Theresa May became prime minister the first thing she did was create a “Brexit department”, to be known as the Department for Exiting the EU, to be known, shortly after, as DExEU. For the next five years or so, DExEU will be the most important department in Government. It will oversee negotiations on almost every aspect of UK policy, and it will manage an enormous transfer of powers, the largest since the Government was formed. It has a great deal to do.
For this it will need staff - several hundred of them. And here comes the hitch. At last count it had just forty, and further recruitment looks to be rather uphill. According to government employees, DExEU is “sending adverts round departments like mad, to no interest”. As one official puts it: “Who would take that job?”
“It must be the hardest job in British politics since the end of empire”, he says. “It’s a job demanding world class negotiation skills, world class trade knowledge”, and “world class analysis of EU law”. “And it’s like, would you like a civil servants salary for that?” “It’s like, we are going to pay you a civil service salary to have the worst five years of your life.”
Part of the problem, says a government source, are the “horrific hours” these jobs are expected to involve. Another says that plans to plug gaps from the private sector will put civil servants off, as they don’t want to be “surrounded by people from Accenture doing the same job on five grand a day”.
In the past such mixed teams have had mixed results. Back in 2008, struggling to staff the unit overseeing the Olympics, the government brought in external candidates, the upshot leading one internal recruit to comment that his new colleague’s bonuses were “more than my annual salary”.
And the biggest problem recruiters will battle, say civil servants, is that “the whole of the civil service is massively disappointed about Brexit”. According to one source the department’s new email addresses may end in “@brexit.gsi.gov.uk”, which potential recruits worry will “completely destroy” their international credibility. And those who want to work on the EU, says another, “want to work on the EU because they love the EU”.
All this, say insiders, means that DExEU is “in a massive panic”. There are rumours of “funnelling a load of inexperienced fast-streamers” into the project. And one civil servant says the department will offer large promotions to tempt new recruits, who otherwise “won’t be paid enough because of how shit the job is”.
But there are some who reckon the posts won’t be hard to fill. “It’s the big issue of the day, which makes it exciting”, says one official. Others think there will be plenty of idealists willing to join the department “for the sake of their country”. DExEU, meanwhile, denies it has any trouble recruiting, saying “every day there are more people here.”
And among the small bunch so far at DExEU there is certainly talent. The lead press officer is David Thompson, former Daily Record and BBC political journalist. The department has also nabbed Whitehall high flier Sarah Healey, formerly Director General at the Department for Culture Media and Sport. George Bridges, the department’s Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, is a real star hire: newly a minister but a behind the scenes veteran who has worked for Michael Howard and David Cameron. And Olly Robbins, formerly Permanent Secretary at the Cabinet Office, has been widely tipped for greatness.
Still, it is notable that none of these reputations have been built on EU experience. This lends credence to a rumour in the civil service of a recruitment bias against those who have done EU jobs “because they’ll all be anti Brexit”. Go to Brussels, says one, and it “claims you for life”. DExEU denies this, saying “I’m sure everyone recruited will be recruited on their merits”.
In any case the task of staffing a large department is a headache the Brexit process could do without. Another headache is finding somewhere for it to work. One government source says DExEU is still holding department meetings in a Starbucks on Victoria Street, as it is yet to find a building.
The department denies this and says its address is 9 Downing Street. (Some say that the fact that 9 Downing Street is simply the back entrance into the Cabinet Office means this is a temporary solution).
And forming a department at all may be the wrong move. Jill Rutter at the Institute for Government, a think tank, thinks it “a costly distraction”. A better initial solution, she says, would be a free-floating Secretary of State, who could act as a co-ordinator between Whitehall departments working on Brexit. A small unit set up to support this role, she says, would have done the job.
“If they get a new email system that will be a cost. Separate finance and HR will be another cost. Salaries may be transferred from different departments but they may not make a matching overheads transfer for things like photocopiers”, she says.
“The last thing you want is for senior manager to be working out all those logistics rather than getting on with the job.”
DExEU could yet be a success. Civil servants working in the Olympics unit, finding it to be the most exciting game in town, ended up turning down promotions to stay there. But DExEU has some way to go before it can start responding to queries without adding “it’s a work in progress”. And right now, as one official puts it, it’s “a work in not very much progress at all”.