LONDON – The British government on Tuesday strongly rejected claims in a leaked report that it is divided over leaving the European Union and has no coherent plan to extricate the U.K. from the 28-nation bloc.
Opponents said the document revealed the chaos behind the government’s frequent assurances that “Brexit means Brexit.”
The Times of London newspaper published a memo, written by a staffer at accountancy firm Deloitte, claiming splits within Prime Minister Theresa May’s team have delayed development of a negotiating strategy with the EU.
The government says it will trigger two years of formal exit talks by March 31.
But the memo says “it may be six months before there is a view on priorities/negotiation strategy as the political situation in the U.K. and the EU evolves.”
The prime minister’s office said “this is not a government report and we don’t recognize the claims made in it.”
Deloitte said in a statement that the note was “intended primarily for internal audiences” and “represents a view” of the task facing Britain’s civil service.
“This work was conducted without access to No. 10 (Downing St.) or input from any other government departments,” Deloitte said.
The document, dated Nov. 7, says individual government departments are working on 500 different projects related to Britain’s EU exit. It says “every department has developed a `bottom up’ plan of what the impact of Brexit could be,” but “there is no prioritization and no link to the overall negotiation strategy.”
The memo says May’s government has little understanding of Brexit’s implications for industry, and “the government’s priority remains its political survival, not the economy.”
It says government departments may need to hire up to 30,000 civil servants to complete the mammoth task of leaving the bloc.
May took office in July, after Britons voted to leave the EU. She had campaigned to stay in, but has promised she will deliver on voters’ decision to leave. Her Cabinet contains both “remain” backers like Treasury Chief Philip Hammond and “leave” supporters including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
The government has declined to say what sort of deal Britain will seek with the EU – including whether it will try to keep Britain in the bloc’s single market for goods and services, something many British businesses desire.
Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said that the memo was right to say that ministers “are in a mess over Brexit and do not have a plan.”
“Brexit is the most important issue facing Britain for generations and it is simply not good enough for the government to give mixed messages and cause unnecessary confusion,” he said.
May’s official spokeswoman, Helen Bower, said the memo appeared to have been written by “a firm touting for business.”
She said the government intended to stick to its timetable, “and I struggle to understand how one individual who has never met the prime minister or any members of her team can then decide that the timetable is somehow off course or different.”
Tony Travers, director of British government studies at the London School of Economics, said it was no surprise the leaked note had provoked a strong reaction, given the febrile atmosphere surrounding Britain’s EU exit.
Travers said pro-Brexit politicians “fear that out of chaos, out of a lack of a plan, might come a much weaker version” of divorce than they want. But he said pro-EU forces shouldn’t take too much comfort from hints of government confusion.
“Brexit will happen. Britain will leave the EU – but the question is on what terms,” Travers said.
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