Gus O’Donnell - Irresponsible to press ahead with Brexit with no clarity on destination - People's Vote

Gus O’Donnell - Irresponsible to press ahead with Brexit with no clarity on destination

Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, the man once referred to as “GOD” in Whitehall, today became the latest former top civil servant to warn of the threat of a Blindfold Brexit and to urge Parliament to extend the Brexit deadline.

His intervention means past holders of the three most senior posts in Britain’s civil service – Cabinet Secretary, Head of the Home Civil Service and Head of HM Diplomatic Service, are united in warning that the United Kingdom is heading for a disastrous Brexit in which none of the essential questions about the country’s future economic, social, security and environmental directions and relationships will have been settled.

Lords O’Donnell, Kerslake and Kerr have all warned today that staking our future on the non-binding text of the 26-page Political Declaration that accompanied the legally enforceable Withdrawal Agreement would be a serious mistake.


Writing in the Evening Standard, Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, who was Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service to three Prime Ministers between 2005 and 2011, says:

“Just seven short weeks before we are due to leave the EU, there is a fundamental challenge for Government: we do not have any clarity about our future relationship with our closest neighbours.

“While attention was focused on the Withdrawal Agreement, it is specifically the Political Declaration that should be the greatest cause for concern. It is not legally binding and leaves open numerous important issues.

“Are we going to follow a Norwegian model or one from Singapore, Turkey, Switzerland or Albania? The truth is we do not know and it is, I am afraid to say, irresponsible for any government to even contemplate embarking on such a perilous journey as Brexit without giving us a clearer idea of the eventual destination.

“Any final decision by MPs – a ‘meaningful vote’ – on this proposal would be ‘meaningless’. We need clarity from the Government and Parliament on a preferred route to leave the EU. If they cannot agree, there may be no alternative other than to hand the decision back to the people in a new referendum.”


Lord O’Donnell’s remarks come after Lord Kerslake – who succeeded Lord O’Donnell as Head of the Home Civil Service – and Lord Kerr – Head of HM Diplomatic Service between 1997 and 2002 – jointly launched the People’s Vote newest report -  No Clarity, No Closure - at a press conference in London this morning.

The intervention by three senior former mandarins underlines growing concern in Whitehall and across civil society about the lack of clarity in a political declaration that was once supposed to set out the UK’s long-term relationship with its closest neighbours and biggest trading partner.


Lord Kerslake said:

“There were once hopes, wildly exaggerated, that Brexit would be some sort of dreamland. But it is now clear it will not be an awakening for our country. Instead, it threatens to turn into a never-ending nightmare with no clarity and no closure for a decade to come.

“Brexit will become like a bad remake of Groundhog Day with the country waking each morning not to ‘I got you babe’ but the latest reports from an endless low-intensity political civil war. If – like me – you have found the last two years of political debate by turns depressing, dis-spiriting, infuriating and plain boring – the next decade will just be more and more of the same.”

Lord Kerr said:

“To Leave on the basis of Mrs May’s deal would be a leap in the dark. No-one knows where we’d end up. The next negotiation would take longer, and our hand would be weaker. The only certainty would be continuing uncertainty.”


Lord Kerslake added:

“There are three Brexit fallacies being perpetrated at the moment by the government. 

“Firstly, that a no deal Brexit is like an ‘act of god’ like flooding. It is perfectly possible to prevent it happening if the government acts now. Parliament has already signalled that it would support this as has the EU. The failure to do so is creating great damage and distress.

“Secondly, that Brexit can be safely delivered by 29 March. Any serious analysis shows that the delay in getting an agreement means we are simply not ready. There is not enough time now even to deal with the required legislation.

“Thirdly, that completing a deal now will bring closure to Brexit. In reality, it will just be the start of another round of equally contentious and pressured negotiations.

“If the government aren’t willing to level with the British people on these issues, then others in authority must do so. There is precedent here. The intervention by Simon Stevens in the NHS funding debate is a good example. In these very dangerous times, it is not sufficient to just speak truth unto power. They also need to speak truth to the British people.”


The report examines nine aspects of the Political Declaration:

  • Goods Trade with Europe – where People’s Vote warn that the UK side is still to formulate its objectives, the July 2018 Chequers proposal having died a death as long ago as last autumn.
  • Services Trade with Europe – where the report warns that hopes of an extensive service trade deal are almost certainly going to be dashed as a result of pre-existing EU commitments in third-country trade deals
  • Security – where the report notes that the Government are already scaling back on hopes of extensive security co-operation
  • Foreign Policy – where the UK will be reduced to an occasionally consulted friendly state rather than having any significant influence
  • Immigration – where the UK’s stated ambition of ending free movement will have to be traded off with its desire to access the Single Market.
  • Citizens’ Rights – Where British citizens are set to lose certainty and powerful legal recourse.
  • Trade Beyond Europe – Where the level of freedom Britain will enjoy is completely clouded by the desire to maintain strong trading relations with the EU.
  • Fisheries – Where despite all the symbolism it seems certain Britain will have to trade sea access for market access.
  • Agriculture – Where British farmers who might hope for easy access to both European and world markets in this most protected of sectors are surely set for disappointment.


The report – No Clarity, No Closure – can be read here: