Philip Rycroft: The inside story of the Brexit 'vortex'
Philip Rycroft, the permanent secretary of the Department for Exiting the EU 2017-2019, made his first Cambridge appearance in a new role as senior distinguished visiting fellow at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy on Thursday (October 3).
In an introduction of great warmth Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, reminded the full house at the Gillespie Centre that Mr Rycroft – a former pupil at The Leys – had been director-general of the deputy prime minister’s office in 2012, where he served until the general election in May 2015. After a gap year as head of the UK Governance Group, he became Second Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU before being appointed Permanent Secretary in 2017.
“It’s as if he deliberately set out to find the fault lines of the country’s politics,” mused Prof Toope of Mr Rycroft's CV.
So what has the senior civil servant at the heart of the Brexit drama got to tell us about it?
There’s a bit of scene-setting . “As a historian by trade I'm looking forward to this [role] immensely,” says Mr Rycroft after thanking his hosts.
He says that although the original title of his talk was ‘Will a no-deal Brexit lead to the break-up of the UK?’, things have changed since then and so has his speech. Not surprising really. The Supreme Court judgment of late September has revealed the Brexit project for what it is: imagine ten tonnes of slurry on the back of a lorry. Where it’s going to be dumped remains unclear even three weeks before the latest proposed exit date, but be sure of one thing - no one wants their fingerprints on the 'deposit' button. They've all quit at one time or another or, as Mr Rycroft put it to laughter: “I got through quite a few of them.”
So who cops the blame? Mr Rycroft is too canny to point the finger, but what he does do is describe the set of circumstances both predictable and unpredictable that piled up both before and after the referendum.
It was during the 2014 independence vote in Scotland that things got interesting. There were clues.
"The first was the Scottish referendum. This was, you might remember, a long campaign, running for over two years."
Alex Salmond exploited the two years to the full.
"The handling of the timing question was in some ways symptomatic of the wider approach to the campaign. Whitehall and Westminster did not, I think, see the result as in doubt.”
Alex Salmond’s playing of the “NHS card” – when the Scottish leader pointed to welfare cuts and creeping privatisation of the NHS in England and promised the Scottish NHS was safe in his hands – nearly won the day. It was what Mr Rycroft calls "the first populist trumpet".
“David Cameron in his book gives his own version, which is a slightly different view from me,” he adds to laughter. “On timing, Cameron went long in Scotland and got burnt. He went short on the EU referendum and got burnt.” So there it is: the four-month EU referendum campaign, which never really got going for Remain, was hobbled from the start by taking a lesson from one situation and assuming it would apply to another.
The results are now all too apparent, Mr Rycroft says: "We still have no idea what our post-EU relationship would look like.
“The Brexit process has driven a disruptive trail through the life of the country that will take many years to fix. The notion that once out we can return to some sort of pre-lapsarian normal is for the birds. Just so if, against the odds, we end up through another referendum staying in. There is no return to the status quo ante; the world has changed, irrevocably, forever."
It's slightly disconcerting to hear a second referendum batted out of the park like this. With all the great institutions in the UK under siege - Parliament, the judiciary, the government, the monarchy even - surely the nation's vote remains (scusi) relevant? But it's also disappointing because it appears to sign up to the Tories' red line: no second referendum.
Meanwhile the costs spiral ever upward. Mr Rycroft cites 2 per cent cut from GDP, investment and growth stalled and the stupdity that “companies that have spent millions” preparing for an unnecessary emergency – “resources that should have been spent on our main problems, such as the low rate of productivity growth” in the UK. "The economy is less able to generate well-paid jobs and the tax revenues that are needed to deal with disadvantage." Though don't forget that lowering corporation tax was enacted during the coalition, so that's a bit of hindsight. "All political life is sucked into the Brexit vortex."
There's a concern that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may not really want Brexit.
“Is there something English in all of this? The agonies of a national discontent with what it has but uncertain of what it wants?”
He concludes optimistically, saying that “there is hope that the pragmatic sense of British people” will win the day.
During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience picks up on this. “How far is pragmatism part of the problem and not part of the solution, so for the referendum it meant those in power didn’t actually think of what would happen?” asked Alison Young, a lawyer.
“It’s a fair point,” replied My Rycroft. “If by pragmatism it means ‘let’s just get through the next month’, or the next year, it’s not good. The pressure of events is pushing us onwards and at the moment pragmatism isn’t working for us. Perhaps a written constitution would be the answer, I’m not sure.”
Asked if there were any positives to come out of Brexit, Mr Rycroft said that “young people are engaged” in politics, "environmentally, and on climate change".
Meanwhile "we need world leaders - I look around and I don't see them". The bigger challenges sidelined by our national crisis - of "how we move beyond Brexit to address the deeper challenges we face, of environmental sustainability, of an ever-increasing pace of technological change, of an ageing society in a less stable world" - are still to be faced. And we'll need all the help - including from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy - we can get.
More by this authorMike Scialom
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