“Is this really all we’ve come up with?” shouted the boss as his team stared dejectedly at the sparsely populated flip charts. “If we don’t get some creative ideas soon this will have been a complete waste of time.”
The strategy away day wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. His part of the business was in trouble. He needed some new ideas quickly but his team weren’t coming up with anything. Shouting at them, which usually worked when he wanted to make people work faster, didn’t seem to be making them think any more creatively.
I am reminded of this every time I hear government ministers talking about Brexit. A bit of creativity, innovation and imagination together with some unspecified whizzy technology will mean that the complexities of leaving the EU can be easily dealt with. It can’t be beyond the wit of man, can it? This is just the sort of thing corporate executives say when they really haven’t a clue what to do next.
Rafael Behr wrote an excellent piece on this yesterday. The hard-line leavers in government, he says, don’t want to get into the messy details of leaving the EU and accuse those who attempt to do so of over-complicating things and creating obstacles:
Some Tories have moved on from the question of what needs doing – the referendum answered that with the single word “leave” – and are applying themselves to the problem of how it might be done: how to protect industries that rely on the single market; how to organise the Irish border; how to support agriculture without EU subsidy. Others shrink from that challenge. They find comfort in the saccharine simplicity of restating the original cause. “Hard” Brexit is the place to which some Tories retreat to avoid getting their hands dirty with compromise. If things go wrong, they can blame the pragmatists for sullying the dream.
The prime minister wasted a year indulging that tendency. One May loyalist describes frustration in cabinet committees when trying to get radical Brexit ministers to focus on detail. Every obstacle is belittled as a symptom of weak faith; every workaround is treated as a trap laid by unrepentant Europhiles seeking to abort the whole thing. No assurance by ex-remainers that they have accepted the referendum is trusted. This leads to a vicious cycle: the only people in government prepared to engage with the question of how Brexit might work are those who didn’t vote for it, which reinforces the zealots’ suspicion that the “softies” are closet saboteurs.
Detail is for sissies. How hard can it be?
In Britain we have long been seduced by the cult of the gentleman amateur – the swashbuckling chap who cuts through all the crap, ignores the boring functionaries and just gets things done. His modern equivalent is the disruptive innovator who circumvents the hierarchy, shakes everything up and trashes the industry’s long-held norms and beliefs. That the words Buccanneer and Brexiteer sound similar is no accident.
Boris Johnson, says Rafael Behr, doesn’t like his current job and he’s not very good at it. This, after all, is a man who doesn’t much care for detail. He has boasted about quitting his management consultancy job after a week:
Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth profit matrix and stay conscious.
I have some sympathy with this. Like many people, I have sometimes felt like chucking my job in after one too many PowerPoint presentations and I don’t like getting to grips with tedious detail either. My natural instinct is to look for the short cut or the new idea that will eliminate the need for mind-numbing processes. I’m one of those ‘surely it can’t be this hard’ types.
The trouble is, though, sometimes it is. What I have learnt over the years is that you often spend so long in the futile search for the disruptive idea, the paradigm shift or the next big thing that, had you devoted that time and energy to working through the messy detail, you would have solved the problem by now. Sometimes you have no choice but to do the boring stuff.
Brexit, I fear, is one of those times. It is riven with eye-wateringly complex detail nested within more eye-wateringly complex detail. There are hundreds of treaties and thousands regulations to be worked through. Thousands of lorries currently go through ports with little or no capacity for customs checks. As the Institute for Government pointed out, the customs point for Dover and the Channel Tunnel only has parking for 82 trucks because most of the trade for these ports is covered by the single market and customs union.
Perhaps one day X-ray machines, robots, airships and drones might be able to do all this but for now this is science fiction. Even if the UK’s new computerised customs system is implemented on time, its design was based on pre-Brexit assumptions. It may not be able to cope with the huge increase in customs declarations.
The further we move away from the EU, the more difficult it will be. The sort of clean-break Brexit advocated by Boris Johnson will require a hell of a lot of detailed work. I’m no expert on the construction of customs infrastructure but I’m guessing that it’s already too late to build enough capacity for 2019. Those who wanted the hardest Brexit were, for the most part, those who were eager for Article 50 to be triggered. If they had stopped to think about it, they should have been the ones arguing for the government to hang fire. A Brexit which sees the UK leaving the single market and customs union and starting out without a single trade deal with anyone, was always going to need far more planning and preparation than can be done within two years.
Yet it is the so-called hard Brexiters who are still maintaining the line that it’s not going to be that difficult and dismissing any suggestion that it might be. As Rafael Behr says:
Reality is coming on hard and fast. May’s true allies in confronting it are the people who warned all along that the impact would hurt. But she has a cabinet packed with people who insist that the collision is avoidable.
You can tell them by the Johnsonian way they twist queries about how it is done into rehashed arguments about why it must be done. And she has a party that prefers a game of hunt-the-saboteur to the boring homework of negotiation.
The time for flowery speeches peppered with classical references and Latin tags is over. This is no job for dilettantes. Those who can’t or won’t get to grips with projections, plans, numbers and tedious detail should go and find themselves something more interesting to do.