Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT


I’m in shock. Never have I witnessed such political turmoil, such drama. And never for one moment did I think the British electorate would vote to leave the EU. Yes, I thought the vote would be close, but I always thought that in the final analysis the electorate would vote for the safe option, for the status quo, and vote Remain. To say that the electorate has delivered a huge, seismic, shock is a colossal understatement. I can’t get my head around it all.

And the immediate political fallout is quite dramatic. David Cameron’s resignation was inevitable, despite his claims to the contrary during the referendum campaign. But who will succeed him? Boris Johnson may be popular among the Conservative Party membership as a whole, but he’s not much liked by his colleagues in the parliamentary party. Yet it’s surely inconceivable that Boris won’t get through to the final ballot of the party membership. If MPs voted Boris out of the final run-off there would be riots in the Shires, wouldn’t there? So we could have a situation whereby Boris is elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party despite the fact that his own MPs don’t as a whole much like or rate him. Boris as Prime Minister? It would actually be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Surely the Conservative Party membership isn’t going to be so silly and elect a high-wire act buffoon as the country’s next Prime Minister? It may have high entertainment value, and the political commentators and cartoonists would have a field day. But government with Boris at the helm? It would be chaotic.

My hunch is that sense will prevail and that we’ll end up with somebody less the clown and more the statesman, or stateswoman. Dear God I hope so.

And the Labour Party is in meltdown with it too facing a leadership contest following mass resignations from the Shadow Cabinet. As I write, there is conflicting advice on whether Jeremy Corbyn can or cannot stand for re-election. If he can, or is allowed to, then the Parliamentary Labour Party will surely only put up one moderate candidate against him to avoid a split vote as happened last September. The wider party membership may still vote for Jeremy Corbyn in large numbers, but with only one other candidate in the field there must surely be a high chance that he would not be re-elected The party membership surely isn’t going to make the same mistake all over again and re-elect him, is it? They aren’t capable of electoral suicide twice in a row are they?

There is talk of a snap general election being called by the new Prime Minister. That makes sense for the government if Jeremy Corbyn is still the leader of the Labour Party at the time. Labour would be thrashed. But if Labour elects a sensible, moderate leader capable of actually winning an election – something you might think an opposition party would want to do – why would the new Prime Minister risk calling an election knowing that the possibility of losing had increased expedientially? That said, Gordon Brown was roundly criticised by the Conservative Party for not calling an election as soon as he replaced Tony Blair. These are chaotic political times.

As if the situation wasn’t surreal enough, let me just throw one more crazy thought at you. Let’s remember that the result of the referendum is, technically, only advisory. This means that parliament does not have to accept the result. It can ignore it. Strange as that might sound, it’s true. And because the result was close, and clearly shows a divided nation, some MPs are saying that the result should indeed be ignored. Or that, now a petition calling for a second referendum has attracted, at the time of writing, over 3 million signatures, there should indeed be a second referendum. Difficult as it might be constitutionally to ignore the voice of one set of people (Brexiteers), you could argue that as the vote was so close it’s pretty difficult to ignore the voice of another set of people (Remainers). The result was not, in my view, sufficiently decisive to be able to do so. Reflect on this. There was a margin of just 3.8% between the Brexit and Remain votes, but with 28% of the electorate not even being bothered to get off their backsides and vote. For a vote as significant and far reaching as this, shouldn’t the result have to be more conclusive to be enacted upon?

As luck would have it, there is a possible way out. From the outset Boris said that we could use a Brexit result to renegotiate a fresh, better deal, have a second referendum which then leads to a Remain result. Well, why not? We don’t have to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to trigger the formal exit proceedings straightaway or, in fact, ever. We could delay it for a few months or even a couple of years and use that time to negotiate a new deal, better than the non-deal David Cameron negotiated. We then put that fresh deal to the British people in a second referendum and, hey-presto, they like the deal and vote to Remain after all. Now, I concede that many, many people who are Brexiteers come-what may, regardless of any deal, would hate that, would cry “foul”. But many, many people would be delighted, and here’s a key point. I’m pretty sure that many who voted to leave the EU did so with a heavy heart, because they did not like the terms of David Cameron’s new deal, such as it was, but are not anti the EU per se. Given a better deal, and a second referendum, they may well vote to stay.

Would the rest of the EU let us have a second referendum on a renegotiated deal? Perhaps not. They refused us a decent renegotiation first time round. Why would they behave any differently? Out is out, they told us. But they also tell us that they really don’t want us to leave. Would they really spurn a second attempt to reach a deal that the British people could accept? If they really don’t want a divorce, well, they can agree to a further renegotiation. Sure, quite a lot of humble pie might have to be eaten, but I rather like the sight of politicians eating humble pie. It’s good for them.

Donald Rumsfeld once spoke of known knowns, of known unknowns and of unknown unknowns. Well, I for one reckon that we have so many unknown unknowns right now it’s almost impossible to work out what will happen next. As I write, all we do know for absolutely certainty is that come the beginning of October we will have a new leader of the Conservative Party and a new Prime Minister. But that is about the only known known. Everything else is a known unknown, or an unknown unknown. When today’s known unknown’s become known knowns, and today’s unknown unknowns become known unknowns is, well, an unknown unknown in itself!

I have no sympathy for David Cameron. He brought this on himself, his party and his country. It was a referendum brought about to try and end a civil war in the Conservative Party on the EU issue, to try and slay the UKIP fox. Dave gambled and failed, and frankly he handled the referendum campaign very badly. Before the campaign proper started he told us that the UK would do just fine outside the EU, and then proceeded to warn us of Armageddon, of plagues of frogs and locusts it we left. He told us before the referendum that he was a Eurospectic, then proceeded to argue so passionately about the importance of staying in that he seems more in favour of membership than the most ardent European. Jacques Delors would have been proud of him.

What will Dave’s legacy be? In time, history will remember him for one thing and one thing only – taking the UK out of the EU, and in the process creating the environment for Scotland to have a second referendum on independence and voting to leave the UK, and kick-starting a process that could lead to the reunification of Ireland. That’s one hell of a legacy Dave! Of course, if my point about not invoking Article 50 comes to pass, none of this may happen. But the epitaph on his political gravestone will not be kind.

Still, what does this mean for transport? To be frank, I don’t really know. If Boris is the next Prime Minister you can say goodbye to a third runaway at Heathrow, that much I do know. But what of aviation policy and our bilateral air services agreements which increasingly are negotiated through the auspices of the EU? What of all those EU rules and regulations which impact on the coach industry? What of the various Rail Packages and of the Fourth Rail Package now going through the Commission? Do these all get dis-applied to the UK? I guess they do. But which EU rules and regulations then get re-applied under UK law? What are the implications for our shipping and ports industries, if any?

One thing is very clear to me. The civil service today is ill-equipped to handle the Brexit negotiations, both in terms of physical numbers and intellectual capability. We’ve been stripped back so much by George Osbourne’s austerity cuts we simply don’t have the capability to handle all of this, let alone take on all the subsequent trade deal negotiations and all the rest of it. This is going to require the employment of an army of new civil servants, but I question whether we have the intuitional knowledge or structures capable of taking on the complex tasks ahead.

We’ll muddle through of course. We always do. It’s the British way. Keep Calm and Carry On may be the order of the day. But right now I have absolutely no idea what we will be carrying on with! Thanks Dave.


Great Minster Grumbles appears in Passenger Transport every fortnight.

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