Theresa May left the EU leaders summit in Salzburg last week amid rancor and ridicule, her Brexit plan in tatters and the specter of a no-deal Brexit looking likelier than ever. As diplomatic failures go, this was pretty major. Britain is supposed to have a top-flight civil service, a “Rolls-Royce machine” that purrs its way through challenges and crises. So how could our diplomats have so seriously misread their European partners?
In the search for people to blame, the prime ministers Europe adviser Olly Robbins has come under fire: “Why were we on Chequers when Chequers so obviously wasnt going to cut the mustard?” asked former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. Other potential culprits have included Mays political team, who ignored civil servants advice, those dependable bogeymen the Democratic Unionist Party and of course the EU leaders themselves.
Theres a rather more convincing explanation for this massive failure: Its a failure of the ecosystem of Mays government, rather than the individuals involved. British government machinery tends to be more comfortable executing a task than questioning fundamental assumptions.
At its best, it makes the British civil service highly effective at pragmatic delivery. At its worst, it creates a walled-off machine, operating in isolation.
The Chequers plan is the classic example of what you get when your red lines have made most options untenable.
This is not the first time that geopolitical disasters have resulted from an overly narrow approach. In the run-up to the Iraq war, British diplomats and spies were tasked with making the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They set about delivering with determination and energy. So successful was this work that, in early 2002, then-CIA Director George Tenet complained to his own spies that “all the good reporting I get is from [MI6].”
Unfortunately, nobody thought to ask the prior question: “Have they actually got these weapons?” The results are now all too well-known: Iraq was invaded on the false premise of a threat from WMD. The country collapsed into anarchy which still plagues it and the wider region, leading directly to the rise of ISIS and a new wave of global terrorism.
Mays Brexit negotiations have suffered from many in her own party questioning her ideological commitment to the cause and very challenging parliamentary arithmetic in light of her failed election campaign in 2017.
Her room for maneuver is further restricted by some of the U.K.s most influential media outlets belittling her advisers and pushing for outlandish and improbable negotiating outcomes, something I have drawn attention to on social media.
Inside this pressure cooker, particularly the extreme pressure that the Brexit process is generating, there is an understandable tendency to focus on the narrow task at hand. This leaves British officials feverishly developing a plan that respects Mays self-defeating red lines rather than the bigger task of finding a plan that can actually be accepted by Europe.
Britains Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after making a statement on Brexit negotiations | Paul Grover/AFP via Getty Images
The Brexit plan agreed by Cabinet ministers at the prime ministers Chequers residence in July is the classic example of what you get when your red lines have made most options untenable but the public has been promised amazing results. It is rather like one of those brainteasers where, using only paper and sellotape, you must make a wine bottle stand 12 inches off the floor for a minute. There is an answer, but it isnt very useful in the real world.
There are also subtle hierarchies built into the British system that make these sorts of car crashes more likely. The clues are in the names: civil servants serve; special advisers advise. Civil servants, even very senior ones, are not often called upon to advise on policies (certainly not as often as theyd like you to think). Civil servants who offer too much realistic advice are often written off as defeatist and moved on, as was the case with former U.K. permanent representative to the EU, Ivan Rogers.
Policies are dreamed up by politicians and their special advisers and given to civil servants to implement. Some special advisers are experts, offering valuable insights not available inside the civil service. Many are long-term party activists who make much of their superior ability to understand their parties voters and fear nothing more than an unpopular policy.
When Conservative MP Richard Drax tried to ambush Olly Robbins at a select committee hearing by asking the civil servant whether, “personally, in your heart,” he is completely committed to Brexit, the reply was: “There is no part of my personal views that will ever play a role in how I serve the government of the day.”
This is an admirable expression of impartiality, but it might have been useful to have some of Robbins personal views injected into the process, given his wide experience. However, a government under pressure at home and abroad, seeing its policy drift toward failure, has turned in on itself just when it needs new ideas.
Until Theresa May starts to focus on the real problems the EU has with her position, rather than her own arbitrary red lines, the specter of no deal will loom ever larger.
Arthur Snell was a British diplomat between 1998 and 2014. He now works as a political risk consultant.
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