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The United Kingdom’s future is now in doubt, says former Brexit chief Philip Rycroft

Boris Johnson has been found by the Supreme Court to have behaved unlawfully in proroguing Parliament. We’re heading towards the October 31 deadline without a deal. And the United Kingdom is at risk of breaking up. In this exclusive interview, we speak to Philip Rycroft, the government’s former Brexit chief, about how we got here, and what happens next.

The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31, 2019
The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on October 31, 2019

The future of the United Kingdom is now in doubt, former government Brexit chief Philip Rycroft has told the Cambridge Independent.

The integrity of the union must be a top priority for the Prime Minister if it is to continue in its current form, he said.

Mr Rycroft was head of the government’s Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) for two years until the end of March 2019.

He has just taken up a position as a distinguished honorary researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and POLIS at the University of Cambridge.

In an exclusive interview, Mr Rycroft said that reviving the deal secured by Theresa May when she was Prime Minister was the “best option on the table”, and said her successor, Boris Johnson, “must learn the art of compromise” if he is to secure a deal before the October 31 Brexit deadline.

Last Tuesday (September 24), the PM was found by the Supreme Court to have behaved unlawfully in proroguing, or suspending, Parliament for five weeks in the run-up to this deadline.

Supreme Court president Lady Hale said: "The effect on the fundamentals of democracy was extreme."

The decision meant MPs returned to the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“Constitutionally this is very significant. The courts are asserting the right of the legislature to hold the executive to account,” said Mr Rycroft. “It makes no-deal less likely on October 31, because it reasserts the power of Parliament.

“It is a major setback for the government. I don’t think anyone anticipated such a decision quite so decisive, with unanimity among the judges.

“What has surprised me – and probably everybody – is that when the Prime Minister has had choices, he’s tended to go for the more radical path.

“Instead of looking for modest changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, he wants to get rid of the Northern Ireland protocol altogether.

“When it came to proroguing Parliament, he chose to take the longer period.

“When it came to the vote on no-deal, he chose to withdraw the whip from those Conservatives that voted against the government.

“But if he wants to do want he said he wants to do, which is get a deal, then he’s going to have to learn the art of compromise - and learn it very quickly.”

Philip Rycroft
Philip Rycroft

Acknowledging that the time left for negotiation was “very short”, he suggested: “The best outcome is to deliver what Parliament voted for when it triggered Article 50 - an orderly exit.

“There is a deal on the table which, despite what everybody says, is a pretty fair deal. It meets the pre-conditions that Mrs May set out, which remain valid. Parliament has failed to vote for any other outcome. It has succeeded in voting against no-deal.

“It would get us out of the EU in good order. It would lead into the transition period, with some stability to negotiate our future relationship. In terms of the short-term options that looks to me like the best option on the table.”

The “question of the day”, he agreed, was whether Parliament would vote for it, having repeatedly rejected it.

Prime Minister Johnson is trying to negotiate some changes to that deal. In order for anything to happen in the timeframe he’s got, most of that deal would have to remain.

“The big issue is around the Northern Ireland protocol - what happens on the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. These are big open questions.

“Can he get the changes that will satisfy him and the EU and would those changes satisfy a majority in Parliament? I don’t think we’ll know the answer to those questions until very late in the day.

“If we are to get a deal, that will require movement on the UK’s side as well as the EU.”

Mr Rycroft will bring his experience and insight as a leading civil servant to his new role in Cambridge, in which he will advise on research programmes on the governance and constitution of the UK and reflect on what Brexit means for both.

A senior insider during the Coalition government of 2010 to 2015, and an experienced adviser on devolution, he will begin his tenure with a public lecture on October 3, on the makings of Brexit and the road ahead for the UK.

He believes that prior to the referendum on EU membership, it was not “top of mind for most people”.

“The drive to the referendum in my view came out of more proximate issues in the Conservative party, in terms of them feeling under pressure from UKIP,” he said.

“In terms of the outcome, the Leave side was very successful in mobilising wider social discontent, both arising from the financial crisis, people’s sense of disenfranchisement, the pressures of globalisation and so on.

“The Leave side was able to convince enough people that if you vote to leave the EU, that would be part of addressing those discontents.

A Brexit rally at The Guildhall, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
A Brexit rally at The Guildhall, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The Remain side mounted a very strong case on economic grounds, but never really succeeded in attaching much emotional content to that.

“In the face of the very visceral Leave campaign, with a very simple message of taking back control, all the Remain side could offer was: ‘This is a risky business’. It failed to make Remain a message of hope for the future.”

Describing the task of preparing for Brexit as “an absolutely enormous challenge”, he said a huge extra resource went into planning for both a deal and no-deal outcome.

“The department that I had the privilege to lead through from the early days of about 450 people to about 750 by the time I left was only a fraction of the total resources across the government preparing the country for Brexit.

“The civil service has acquitted itself extremely well through all of that,” he said.

“It was the working assumption that we would get a get withdrawal agreement, which indeed we did, and that this would pass through Parliament.

“It’s easy in hindsight to say it didn’t have a chance, but if you go back to the back end of last year, or earlier, the sorts of things contained in the withdrawal agreement met the main objectives of most Parliamentarians, which was to get us out of the EU in good order.

“It’s a measure in a way of the polarisation of opinion that happens when you have referendums, that what would have been a perfectly acceptable route out of the EU had it been offered in 2016 when it was offered at the end of 2018 was deemed by the Brexiteers in the Conservative party and some of the opposition to be unacceptable.”

He was never asked, he confirmed, to plan for a second referendum.

While disruption from a no-deal Brexit is inevitable, Mr Rycroft suggested it was “very difficult” to be precise about the short-term impact.

“This is a massive change that will happen overnight to a major trading relationship. It is a system composed of millions of moving parts.

“Despite all the preparations, there is bound to be some short-term disruption but it is very difficult to know the extent and duration of that.

“What’s also true is that no-deal will also have a long-lasting economic impact. The government’s modelling and Bank of England analysis shows this unequivocally.

“That’s because no-deal puts friction into a trading relationship, both for goods and services, that is at the moment almost friction free.”

Will the UK secure a deal before October 31?
Will the UK secure a deal before October 31?

The loss of skills and people - a major concern for Cambridge companies and organisations - could be a key impact, he said.

“Inevitably, the ending of free movement makes the UK a less attractive place for folk from the EU to come and live and work.

“The government has offered reassurance to those already in the country and has a policy in place for those in the short-term who wish to come after Brexit. But the government has yet to decide on its long-time immigration for European Economic Area citizens.”

Mr Rycroft believes a border in the Irish Sea is the solution to the backstop question, as put forward by the EU.

“It is relatively straightforward because you’re controlling trade from port to port, which is easier than across a land border. In terms of practicalities, undoubtedly it is the simplest solution.

“It comes up against the objections of the DUP because of the impact it would have on their perception of Northern Ireland in the rest of the UK. Alternatives to that are really hard to find.

“What the Prime Minister is edging towards by all accounts is a solution which allows some continued integration of the economy on the island of Ireland, for example in agrifood products, so Northern Irish produce would continue to abide by EU rules, but he’s still talking about so-called alternative arrangements to handle other goods and customs requirements.

“Alternative arrangements are not a figment of the imagination. There are other ways of facilitating trade across borders.

“The problem is there is no national border in the world that doesn’t require some sort of physical infrastructure. So the notion that alternative arrangements can solve this problem quickly is very optimistic.”

Whichever way that challenge is tackled, the UK’s future is in question.

“The UK as a union state is under some pressure,” he argued. “It’s not long since we’ve had the referendum in Scotland on independence, and Scottish opinion remains pretty much divided down the middle. The situation in Northern Ireland is far from stable.

“Support for independence is even beginning to edge up in Wales.

The UK voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum
The UK voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum

“Brexit, and the form it takes, is having quite a profound impact on relations on this island.

“We must never forget that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

“We are now looking at a hard-edged Brexit - or, if there is a no-deal, a Brexit in the most scything form we can imagine it.

“So top priority for this and a future Prime Minister has to be to think about the integrity of the United Kingdom, if we want to see it continue in its current form.”

Mr Rycroft was head of the UK Governance Group in the Cabinet Office, advising ministers on the constitution and devolution from June 2015 to March 2019, and served as director general in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, from May 2012 to May 2015.

He believes it is time to roll out more substantial devolution - and has suggested a federal arrangement may be required.

“From an English perspective, Brexit and its discontents has revealed a big gap in the sense of distance between the governed and those doing the governing.

“England has struggled for many years for many years to find a good arrangement for local economic development. Local government has been challenged for many years.

“The experiments with metro mayors that kicked off under the Coalition has come some way but Brexit should prompt thinking about a more systematic, thorough-going devolution of real power to localities, regions within England. Power has to be brought close to the people.”

That is a view that would find favour with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s own metro mayor, James Palmer, who has talked about future powers over health and education potentially lying with the region’s Combined Authority.

Mr Rycroft would argue the very future of the nation is at stake.

Theresa May ‘created the context’ that later trapped her

A Brexit rally outside The Guildhall, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
A Brexit rally outside The Guildhall, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

Theresa May created the context that later left her in an impossible position, Philip Rycroft argued.

Acknowledging she “was politically in a really tough place”, he said: “She had choices early on. She decided to trigger Article 50 early. She laid down the red lines in the Lancaster House speech in early 2017 so she made choices in pushing this enterprise in a particular direction.

“She chose to appoint Boris Johnson and David Davis to key positions as Brexiteers in the cabinet. She created the context which she later got jammed in.

“It was clear as early as the Lancaster House speech that there was a contradiction in laying down red lines that said we will come out the customs union and the single market but we will have no hard border in the island of Ireland.

“I think it took her some time to realise how difficult it was to square that circle.

“By the time she got round to doing that, which in essence is what the Withdrawal Agreement does, there had been a further radicalisation of opinion among the Brexiteers, and what might have been acceptable if offered early on, turned out to be unacceptable.

“It was clearly frustrating for her, but you can see the trajectory to that outcome from the conditions she set out at the beginning of her journey on Brexit.”

For tickets to Philip Ryman’s talk on October 3, visit Eventbrite.

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