Setback for Brexit planning as senior UK official quits

Departure of Matthew Coats, who was part of Brexit preparations, described as ‘alarming’

British prime minister Boris Johnson in front of a CT scanner during a visit to The Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow, Essex on Friday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

British prime minister Boris Johnson in front of a CT scanner during a visit to The Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow, Essex on Friday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

 

One of the UK’s most senior officials responsible for Brexit planning is to quit his post just weeks before Britain’s planned departure from the EU, in the latest indication of the upheaval that the crisis is imposing on the civil service.

The Cabinet Office confirmed that Matthew Coats, the director-general for EU Exit Implementation, is to leave his job, a critical role in which he answers directly to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal planning.

Mr Coats’s departure is particularly significant because he also heads the Border Delivery Group, a body that co-ordinates the work of all government departments on planning for the Dover-Calais strait – potentially the most sensitive issue in a no-deal Brexit.

“This really is a puzzling and alarming development, coming so close to the October 31st deadline,” said a senior Whitehall figure on being told of Mr Coats’s move. “For this to happen at such a moment is extraordinary.”

The revelation about Mr Coats’s departure came as Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, met Steve Barclay, Brexit secretary, on Friday.

Although UK prime minister Boris Johnson has insisted he wants to secure a new withdrawal deal with Brussels, talks with the EU have stalled over the Irish border issue.

Mr Johnson and his team of negotiators have so far tabled four “non-papers” – non-legally binding proposals – which suggest an all-Ireland zone for agriculture and food, as well as arrangements for customs checks and regulatory checks for manufactured goods. But EU officials have said these fail to meet all of its basic tests for avoiding a hard border.

Following Friday’s talks between Mr Barnier and Mr Barclay, it emerged that the UK plans to send concrete Brexit proposals to the EU after next week’s Conservative party conference, in time for scrutiny ahead of the European Council meeting which starts on October 17th.

Mr Coats has been the director-general for EU exit planning for 18 months. But he only took over the task of managing the Border Delivery Group last summer after the departure of his predecessor Karen Wheeler.

“This means that Whitehall will now be on to its third director-general responsible for border readiness in as many months,” said Joe Owen, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government think-tank. “High turnover in critical positions is never a positive sign for the delivery of major projects.”

New role

Officials said Mr Coats was moving to a new role in government as executive chair of the government automation task force.

They sought to play down his move, saying 18 months was a long time to be in charge of the EU Exit planning post. However, the degree of personnel turnover which Brexit has generated across Whitehall, especially in senior posts, is alarming many officials.

“In total, two out of three directors general in the Department for Exiting the EU and five out of 10 Dexeu directors will have changed over the past six months,” one official told the Financial Times recently. “This is doing serious damage to civil service morale.”

At their meeting, Mr Barnier told Mr Barclay that any Brexit plan must avoid a hard frontier between the UK and the Republic.

“Michel Barnier stressed that it is essential that there is a fully operational solution in the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect the all-island economy and the integrity of the single market,” the European Commission said in a statement.

“The EU remains open and willing to examine any workable and legally operative proposals that meet all these objectives.”– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019