By the Uncivil Servant, our anonymous columnist with an insider’s view of government.
You have to feel for civil servants at this time. No really, you do. Imagine being tasked with distilling the complex issues we currently face into concentrated documents that present issues to decision makers – the politicians – in a simple manner that says ‘if you do this, this could happen, on the other hand, this could happen.’ Achieving that insight at a time of such uncertainty has never been harder.
Then there’s the unenviable task of preparing briefings that consolidate all the issues in a department’s portfolio, ready for new ministers to pick up and run with after a September reshuffle.
An autumn reshuffle is taken as a given in Whitehall, and some names are high on the list for manoeuvre. Amongst them, Hancock (the man needs a rest!), pensions secretary and former Defra Minister, Thérèse Coffey, and anybody else the PM suspects to have underperformed during the COVID-19 crisis or Brexit dealings. No doubt Eustice will scratch off another of his nine-lives in retaining his Defra seat.
Meanwhile, Johnson has abandoned the government’s previously high-hopes of striking a trade deal with the US. COVID was labelled the main reason, alongside the pressure of the November US election and access for US agricultural products into the UK market. Arguably the problem runs deeper than that.
The New York Times comments that the UK’s entire relationship with the US is in jeopardy if former Vice President, Joe Biden wins the November election. “Britain would face a president who opposed Brexit, would look out for Ireland, and may have little interest in a trade deal.” (NYTimes, 31.7.20) Indeed, British officials are all too aware that the president they tried so hard to accommodate may be out of power next year.
Closer to home, talks with the EU are also yet to yield any notable results. Negotiations intensified in July, but failed to reach mutual agreement. Talks will continue throughout September, with the aim of having a deal at the latest by the 31 October.
Given the magnitude of UK-EU trade, completing a satisfactory deal with the EU should have taken the priority over courting Trump. Yet, as the transition deadline looms into view with no deal to speak of either side of the pond, where will government seek to place the blame and who will become the September scapegoat?