Former Brexit minister urges more government planning for ‘no deal’ EU exit
Lord Bridges said there’s no time to focus on anything but Brexit-related priorities
Lord Bridges stepped down from his role as Brexit minister in June. Credit: PA
Former Brexit minister Lord Bridges has urged the government “not to be too coy” about its preparations for the possibility of a “no deal” on leaving the EU, and to be “laser-like in its focus on Brexit”.
George Bridges, who served as former parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Exiting the European Union until he stepped down in June, said it was important that government’s “planning for contingencies is made more visible to the public”.
His comments come after prime minister Theresa May said the government’s position remains that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, and after reports that civil servants are setting out concerns about the Brexit process in emails chiefly intended to protect themselves in the event of a future Chilcot-style inquiry.
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In a softening of previous rhetoric, May did not directly use the phrase “no deal is better than a bad deal” during her major speech in Florence last week, but she did affirm that the government continues to prepare for the possibility that the UK will leave the EU without a deal.
Asked, on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday, about whether the government has a credible contingency plan in the case of a no deal, Bridges said: “I think that the plan is certainly coming together, those who say we aren’t preparing for it are completely and utterly wrong.
“I’d say I spent 70% of my own time focusing on nothing else but what will happen at customs, data, aviation, energy, law, the list goes on and on.
“I would urge the government to not be too coy about this, because whilst I do not want to have us crashing out, it is absolutely the case that we need to be ready for that.”
He added that if EU negotiators sense that the UK is not ready to leave the European Union without a deal “we will be captured at the negotiating table”.
Bridges, who voted remain, refused to be drawn on his reasons for quitting his post in DExEU, besides citing family reasons, and nor did his want to comment on other departures from the department, with two ministers and permanent secretary Oliver Robbins leaving the department in the past year.
“I think there’s a great team there and the prime minister has marshalled her forces well,” he said.
But he did stress that ministers who say they don’t want this government to be defined by Brexit are “sending all the wrong signals”, likening it to if Winston Churchill had said he didn’t want his government to be defined by the war.
“Brexit is a defining moment for this country,” he said. “It is defining, akin to the challenges that we faced in the 1940-45 period, in policy terms.”
“The government needs to be laser-like in its focus on Brexit, absolutely thinking about the policy challenges it presents for every single department… and the opportunities that might be there.”
He called for more regular meetings of the Brexit cabinet committee, and for planning for contingencies to be made more visible to the public and particularly to business.
“That would all help to make sure minds are focused right across government,” he added. “We haven’t got time to be focusing on anything other than Brexit-related priorities.”
He praised May’s decision to ask for a two-year transition period to give the UK more time to negotiate the treaty in full. But he called for clear “heads of terms” to be in place by March 2019, to ensure that “everyone is absolutely beyond doubt that we are going to leave the EU”.
In a key Brexit speech on Friday ahead of the next round of exit talks this week, May proposed the UK will continue to pay into the EU for up to two years after the official Brexit date of 30 March, 2019, and continue to abide by Brussels laws and regulations.
"While the UK’s departure from the EU is inevitably a difficult process, it is in all of our interests for our negotiations to succeed… so I believe we share a profound sense of responsibility to make this change work smoothly and sensibly, not just for people today but for the next generation who will inherit the world we leave them,” she said.
"The eyes of the world are on us but if we can be imaginative and creative about the way we establish this new relationship... I believe we can be optimistic about the future we can build for the United Kingdom and for the European Union."
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