[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]
I had invited Institute for Government colleagues round for a barbecue on the evening of 23 June 2016. We had planned to have fun on the roof terrace, watch the UK membership to the European Union referendum (‘Brexit’) results come in and take the next day off to recover while the Government returned to business as usual.
Instead, we watched all night, riveted, as the leave votes piled up (and the pound sterling dropped through the floor). Dawn broke and we were still watching. At 8 am the Prime Minister resigned. A colleague received a message to say that everybody was needed at work to plan the Institute for Government’s response to Brexit.
The Institute for Government is a non-partisan London-based think tank, established in 2008. Our mission is to make the UK Government more effective. We look at the ‘how’ not the ‘what’ of government policymaking – covering areas such as accountability, the way government uses digital, information management, and the quality of policymaking. One thing we had steered clear of over our first eight years was Europe – our focus had been on the government departments in Whitehall and polarised debates about the UK’s membership to the European Union (EU) seemed like tricky territory. But in the run-up to the referendum we had established a small team and started developing our capacity on Europe. That formed the nucleus of our post-referendum efforts.
We were clear from the start that we would never say that Brexit was the right or wrong choice – our focus would be that the Government’s Brexit policy had to be delivered well. Our lack of a track record on Europe before the referendum proved to be a big bonus, particularly with broadcasters wedded to ‘balance.’
In the early post-referendum months we focused on applying what we knew: how the Government needed to organise for the most daunting challenge the country had faced since the Second World War. We published our first report, Brexit: Organising Whitehall to deliver, within a month of the referendum and days before Theresa May became Prime Minister. Her first act as Prime Minister was to ignore our key recommendation: she set up the dedicated Brexit department that we had counselled against. A year later she had to make changes that validated our initial warnings.
Our team’s main focus early on was getting up to speed on the technicalities: how would the exit process work? How did the EU trade with third countries? What would be the process for approving a deal? We then got more specific: what are the common fisheries and common agricultural policies? Why did the EU think the UK owed a divorce bill? We developed a series of ‘Brexplainers’, neutral explanations of the issues at stake (often with great graphics) to share the knowledge we gained. The EU divorce bill explainer and our Trade after Brexit report have been our most read publications. We offered briefings to major news organisations, helping to establish ourselves as helpful, informed commentators.
We have divided our focus between the three big processes: negotiating, legislating and implementing Brexit (which the UK Government has had to undertake simultaneously rather than sequentially) as well as considering what the options were for life ‘after Brexit.’
The Government has, for most of the period since the referendum, been incredibly unforthcoming about its plans for and assessment of the likely impact of Brexit. As a result, we have found that our team has been increasingly in demand to speak to a wide range of audiences, as people try to figure out what is going on and how it is going to affect them. In the past few months, we have spoken at: a conference organised by Prospect, the civil service union for frontline staff; at regional Brexit roadshows of the Engineering Employers Federation and other trade associations; and even at the Bradford Literary Festival!
We know that we have regular readers in EU capitals and in Brussels – and sometimes have to make clear that we are not being used by the UK Government to test the waters for their own proposals. We put on events in our building, bringing different voices in to close contact with Whitehall decision-makers. And we give evidence to parliamentary select committees, who regularly cite our reports.
That makes for a lot of activity. But does it make for a lot of influence? We do not pretend that we will shape the final decisions on Brexit – those will be hammered out in the Prime Minister’s office, Brussels and in the UK Parliament. But we do think that we have helped improve the scrutiny of Government decisions – and made the debate in the UK better informed on the process and practical implications of Brexit. We make sure that what we say is always based on the best evidence we can find. In a debate dominated by shrill opinions and assertions, we need to be vigilant that we do not deviate from that principle.