Farron: Government making up Brexit strategy on the back of a fag packet

People who know about how the government and civil service operate have been expressing concern about the challenges Brexit poses for months.

Back in November, the Telegraph reported a leaked memo saying 30,000 extra civil servants would be needed to cope. The following week, the former head of the civil service Bob Kerslake had this to say:

It’s not possible to do that at a point when the civil service is at its lowest numbers since the second world war and continuing to fall.

“I think it is pretty essential for the government to pause, review, take stock of what it has in front of it and then revisit the question of capacity.

“And I don’t think it’s necessarily about lots of skills that the civil service doesn’t have – I think it has huge skills but there will be a real issue about numbers to deliver these very big demands.”

Back in August, former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell said that the Government needed to get its strategy in place before invoking Article 50 and there was no rush to do so:

“The key for government is to have a strategic plan to say: ‘What kind of UK do we want? What is our place in the world? What are we trying to achieve in these negotiations?’

“Once you have got those strategic decisions sorted out, then you can go about thinking about ‘so when should we implement article 50?’. I wouldn’t be in a rush.”

He said there was also no hurry because elections in France and Germany next year meant it was unclear which leaders the prime minister would be negotiating with.

Today, senior civil service union leader Dave Penman attacked the Government for its knee-jerk reaction that any criticism of its strategy was a betrayal of the British people:

It is pure politics that is defining the Brexit debate and forcing May to say this is not a big, difficult job, and it is all in hand. Ministers lack the political courage to admit how complex and time-consuming this will be.

“When anyone pops their head above the parapet – former permanent secretaries, ex-cabinet secretaries, the Institute for Government – and says this is going to take a long time and its complex, they are immediately shot down and accused of betraying the will of the people.

“The politics around Brexit are the biggest risk to Brexit. The government is clearly in a situation where they are trying to deny the complexity of it,” he said.

Tim Farron responded by saying that the Government was making up its strategy “on the back of a fag packet”:

The representative of Britain’s civil servants is now saying publicly what many civil servants have been saying privately: that ministers are making up their Brexit strategy on the back of a fag packet.

Six months on ministers sill haven’t got to grips with Brexit, even on fundamental questions such as whether they want to remain in the Single Market.

It emerges that the Home Secretary proposed a register for foreign workers without having done the most basic due diligence, namely assessing whether her department had the resources to implement such a measure.

As each day passes it becomes ever clearer that this divided Conservative Brexit government has no plan, and no clue.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in News.


  • Hard to disagree with Tim’s assessment, although he might however be a little charatible about the fag packet bit of the plan; they’d love to have one of them. I suspect the brave brexiteers will demand en mass to rubbish Tim, nailed on they won’t have a plan though, plans and experts they do not do.

  • No he did not say that, and Tim should know better than to try to make cheap sound bite points about it when there are ample legitimate points to make about government policy. It may play well with people who already support his stance,less so with those he needs to change their mind in any future vote. Or is it that he thinks we are too stupid to understand anything other than back of the fag packet sloganeering?

  • Much as I like Tim I don’t think this is the wisest thing he has said. I thought the LibDem blogger (and I’m really sorry, I can’t remember who it was so that I could credit them) who pointed out how complex divorce proceedings between two individuals can be as a corrective metaphor for those advocating a hard Brexit had the right idea. It is the complexity of the process that it is important to emphasise, and Tim’s phraseology makes it all sound conceivably simple.

  • Plain Speaker 28th Dec '16 - 4:46pm

    I think Tim needs to be a bit careful – he is coming over as a bit ‘cheeky chappy’ whereas he needs to be plugging away at the elements of the best deal we can get. Just to give one example of an issue where he could get some traction. The Brexiteers constantly shout that an EEA deal is unacceptable because it requires free movement of people. This is not correct. The EEA agreement requires free movement of workers but only to accept a job already offered (art20 EEA). It appears the Swiss (not in EEA I know but similar) have a deal to continue to accept free movement of workers but only after no local can be recruited. There is scope here for the UK within EFTA/EEA to get a deal – but someone has to keep saying it. EU free movement of people depends upon EU citizenship and Schengen. Neither have standing within the EEA agreement.

  • Yanis Varoufakis stated (before the referendum) that there was nothing to compare a country like the UK leaving a union like the EU to and the next step would be a great unknown. For a party that has been banging on about it for decades it’s incredible that the Tories had not come up with a plan, or even a plan of how to construct a plan! “Democracy means democracy” may sound good and binding, “we will not negotiate in public” may sounds sensible but the reality paints this government as unprepared, dismissive of the public and willing to cut its nose in order to serve individuals within their own party.

    They will still likely win the next GE.

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Dec '16 - 5:43pm

    A Dutch woman with two British kids and a British husband has been asked to leave the UK after 24 years. This is an absolute disgrace and there’s not enough outrage about it.

    Honestly, my brother’s wife is ill with worry about getting deported and I don’t know what this story will do to her. I can just tell her to make sure she keeps her Lithuanian passport up to date but that won’t help her anxiety much.

    I know this isn’t directly on topic, but these people often don’t have much of a voice and it is EU related.

  • I do wonder what would haopen to the Tory vote if the Lib Dems offered to cancel Brexit and reduce taxes giving money back to the tax payer that would have been spent on Brexit. We could still aim to cut the deficit and increase spending as long as we said we would ring fence the money being spent on Brexit.

    If we then took that message into the likes of John Redwoods constituency I wonder how fast the Tory vote would collapse?

  • DJ, I completely agree with you. They could and should have had at least a contingency plan for an out vote, the current situation is a result of them not producing one, they got away with it on the Scottish referendum. Please don’t think it is just remainers who are angry about the lack of planning.

  • Tynan

    “Please don’t think it is just remainers who are angry about the lack of planning.”

    Actually I think it is, I know lots of people who voted leave and the only thing they are angry about is what they see as remainers trying to slow the process down.

  • Katharine Pindar 28th Dec '16 - 9:48pm

    It’s good that Tim even in the Christmas holidays is pointing out the weaknesses of both the Government and the Labour Party positions on Brexit. However, rather seeming to agree with David Becket above, I have written to Tim to ask him to develop his thinking and build on his excellent instincts to give us more guidance in the New Year. Oh, and of course, please to encourage the setting up of a study group to debate what the party might consider as desirable and possible reforms for the EU in future.

  • Malc, you may be right. For myself I voted out because I do not want to be part of the E.U.s philosophy, institutions or bodies. In particular it turns my stomach to be part of an organisation that continues to say the eurozone is worth the price, obviously we are not in it,but we support by our membership of the E.U. I like to think if any other trade block was causing such damage to its members we would be a vocal opponent.
    To your main point I knew the government had no plan, deliberately so, but still voted out. Am I angry with what has happened since? Yes I am, do I think parliament should have full scrutiny,yes. Do I think back of the fag packet is justified or accurate,no, it is complex,it was always going to be. I still believe long term it is the best for Britain, it would be cool if all sides stopped playing for short term gain.

  • Christian,
    It has never been about personal financial gain for me, but nice try, might catch some fish with that, if you could ever present the bait.

  • Tynan
    It will be financial loss, a lower standard of living for you.
    Those other trade blocks will do well.

  • The Tories know perfectly well that they can’t handle Brexit and the result will be a disaster for Britain at every level. That’s why they are bombarding us with lies about how anyone who warns against trying to do this cheaply, quickly and carelessly is “against the will of the people.” When the full economic and social calamity of Brexit becomes hideously clear, we shall hear endlessly about how they would have managed the biggest, bestest Brexit ever – if it hadn’t been for all the “traitors” and “negativity”. Corrupt, ignorant incompetence must always find an excuse. I fear that enough of the British people are sufficiently ignorant, arrogant, xenophobic and deluded about their place in the world that this strategy will work as well as the Brexit lies did.

  • Mick Taylor 29th Dec '16 - 4:06am

    Tim wasn’t saying that our plan is a back of a fag packet calculation. He was saying, quite rightly in my view, that this is the state of the government’s plan for Brexit and it’s not good enough. If we are going to leave the EU, then it needs a serious thoroughgoing exercise to work out all the implications, the full costs, the alternatives, the likely economic effects. Tim’s fag packet metaphor is bang on because it shows just how useless this Tory Brexit government is and how they are leading the UK to disaster.
    I like his ‘cheeky chappie’ approach. It shows him to be a real human being and not a political automaton. It fits with the current public view because the public seem to want real people to be in politics, not the usual political class. That’s why they like Farage, because he seems to be anti the establishment they’ve been taught to hate. We have two useless establishment parties in Labour and the Tories, we don’t need the Lib Dems to be a third.

  • @ Eddie Sammon – don’t you understand that is exactly what many people voted for ? You keep going on about your basically Tory views, but ignore the reality of the mess they have created. Lots of people aren’t going to be happy if immigration doesn’t fall. They don’t care about the ‘economy’, whether they are personally worse off or the effect on UK nationals in the EU, they want fewer ‘foreign’ people in the UK.

  • Rather than offer a running commentary on the governments strategy or lack of one, Tim ought to be spelling out what he would be seeking to achieve in any Brexit negotiations – people might go, oh, I like the sound of what that Lib Dem chap is suggesting. May probably does have a idea of what she is seeking, she won’t say because it will split the Tories and she wants to sell the end deal not the negotiations. At some point, May will have a public strategy and a public deal and all the ‘fag packet’ criticism will be irrelevant. Lets hope Tim has a strategy for attacking the Tories that isn’t built on sand and events beyond his control.

  • At Tynan “I knew the government had no plan, deliberately so, but still voted out. Am I angry with what has happened since? Yes I am”

    Given the stupidity of your statement, perhaps you ought to stop offering us the benefits of your views.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Dec '16 - 5:56am

    Caracatus, the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to deport people’s spouses and parents and I’ll carry on protesting.

    When it comes to Tory voters, I’ve already said I can’t vote Tory whilst Theresa May refuses to guarantee rights for migrants and even the vast majority who did did not vote for deportations of family members who came here legally.

  • Paul Murray 29th Dec '16 - 7:33am

    @Eddie Salmon – but she hasn’t been deported. She applied for UK citizenship and failed to supply all the necessary documentation (specifically her passport). She consequently received a standard letter. Nobody is deporting her. It’s an easily resolved admin problem that The Guardian has tried to convert into a story about how the blackshirts have already taken over at The Home Office.

  • Daniel Walker 29th Dec '16 - 8:25am

    @Paul Murray The article did state that she had provided a solicitor-approved copy of her passport, which is allowed, and a good reason why she needed to keep the original.

    The form letter didn’t correctly cover her situation, and ergo should not have been sent unedited.

  • The process of leaving the EU would be smoother if people like Gina Miller stopped throwing legal road blocks into the path of the government. If she wins her legal challenge in the Supreme Court, Miller has already signalled her intention to pursue further court action unless Theresa May gives the House of Lords as well as the Commons a vote before triggering Article 50.

  • Judging from the opinion polls there appears to be a slight movement from Leave to Remain, maybe enough to change the outcome. One “vodoo” poll for the Express and Star in Shropshire showed a massive such movement, but surely that can be discounted.
    Do personally know some folk who voted Leave to “put one up Cameron”, but now would abstain.

  • Pat 29th Dec ’16 – 8:54am….The process of leaving the EU would be smoother if people like Gina Miller stopped throwing legal road blocks into the path of the government….

    More evidence, if more were needed, that “Blame the ‘Remainers'” is the only common exit strategy…
    Davis, Johnson and Fox continue to make contradictory statements with May’s only clarification that, “Brexit means Brexit”…

    While ministers waffle and those ‘tasked with the real work’ i.e. Civil Servants bemoan the lack of any plan, it’s still the remainers that are at fault….

  • @ Pat “The process of leaving the EU would be smoother if people like Gina Miller stopped throwing legal road blocks into the path of the government”.

    It says a lot about your attitude to a mature democracy to make such a statement. Would you prefer a series of tyrannical authoritarian dictats instead ?

    Ponder on the words of Lord Justice Denning : “Be ye never so high, the law is above you ”.

  • Peter Watson 29th Dec '16 - 10:52am

    @theakes “Judging from the opinion polls there appears to be a slight movement from Leave to Remain, maybe enough to change the outcome.”
    The same polls that predicted a victory for Remain?
    I voted Remain (in spite of its dismally negative campaign to make membership of the EU look like the lesser of two evils) but bet on Brexit (my first ever foray into gambling) because I suspected the polling masked shy Brexiters who had been demonised as uneducated xenophobic racists. I don’t see any change, and agree with Anthony Wells at UKPollingReport that “It is clear from current polling that that has not been any significant shift in public opinion since the referendum”.

  • Tim Farron: “As each day passes it becomes ever clearer that this divided Conservative Brexit government has no plan”

    This appears to be Tim’s line on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and week-ends he insists the government is “pursuing a hard Brexit strategy”. These things cannot possibly both be true, so which is it?

    “[Gus O’Donnell] said there was also no hurry because elections in France and Germany next year meant it was unclear which leaders the prime minister would be negotiating with.”

    This strikes me as an odd reason for delaying Article 50 invocation. With 27 other EU countries, all on different electoral cycles, there must be at least half a dozen general elections per year on average; and every single one of those countries has as much power to veto a Brexit agreement as France or Germany does. In fact, as we saw with the Canada/Walloon fiasco, even some regions of countries have as much power to nix an agreement as France or Germany do.

    The longer we delay, the more our economy is likely to be derailed by the uncertainty – which is, perhaps, what some of the Brexit-deniers are hoping for.

  • NickT

    “enough of the British people are sufficiently ignorant, arrogant, xenophobic and deluded about their place in the world that this strategy will work”


    “@ Eddie Sammon – don’t you understand that is exactly what many people voted for ?”

    May as well just pack up and go home then?

    Or perhaps try coming up with a better message to cut through to those who voted out (and only luke warm “Remain”) so they see the benefits of a deal that is as close as possible (or even as time progresses perhaps the benefits of Remain). You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  • Pat

    Many things would be “smoother” without the rule of law, not a good reason to abandon it though.

  • @Eddie Sammon – The vote to leave the EU was just that, the reasons people voted are varied. Inherent in any vote to leave the EU is the loss of the right on EU citizens to remain in the UK. Why would May grant your wish ? There is no guarantee of reciprocity, nor do some voters even want reciprocity. The Tory pledge is to cut immigration to the tens of thousands – so even if there was no one coming to the UK from the EU, they would be missing their target, but still you keep going on about voting for them.

  • Peter Watson: Yes that is what I said, only “a slight movement”, no significant change, we are agreed.

  • Just a thought for the time of year. “Fag packet”, should those words be dropped from the phrase, ,aybe not very healthy encouraging the use of cigarette packets.

  • jedibeeftrix 29th Dec '16 - 2:41pm

    making Liberalism relevant to ordinary people in the 21st century, theakes?

  • Peter Watson 29th Dec '16 - 3:45pm

    @theakes “Yes that is what I said, only “a slight movement”, no significant change, we are agreed.”
    I’m not entirely sure that we are agreed. My interpretation is that “significant” is being used in a statistical sense rather than to describe the magnitude of any change, and it is not apparent from polling that there is even “a slight movement”, certainly not “enough to change the outcome” (which would be very significant in all meanings of the word!). There may be a bit of voodoo polling and some wishful thinking by people on both sides with a vested interest when reading the runes, but nothing significant.
    Wells’ said (on 18 December), “It is clear from current polling that that has not been any significant shift in public opinion since the referendum, most people think the govt is obliged to deliver on the referendum result and that most people do not currently want a second referendum.”. If this is true then Lib Dems might even be swimming against the tide of public opinion rather than changing it. Perhaps the lack of any discernible shift in public opinion means that targeting the 48% is a sound vote-winning strategy for Lib Dems at the moment, but I am concerned that an apparent inability to articulate a consistent message other than anti-Brexit might be damaging in the longer term.
    Picking up on the original article, even if Lib Dems successfully prevent Brexit, it is not clear that the party’s strategy for Bremain is any better defined than the Government’s approach to Brexit. Do Lib Dems want what Cameron negotiated, what we had before, or “ever closer union”?

  • The problem is jedibeeftrix is if liberalism dies something else will arise to fight the Tory hegemony. Given how incompetent the Tories are being at the moment, with their only plan to throw people under the bus and hope the OAP vote holds up, you’ll not like it and when it wins you’ll certainly not like it as they throw you under the bus.

  • The role of the Liberals is to hold up a faint beacon of light and to try to prevent the darkness from both left and right overwhelming the UK and dare I say it the Western world. Over egging the pudding, I fear not, you only have to see the bile thrown at the remainers to realise their are a lot of very angry and hate filled people out their; unfortunately much of this can be laid at the politicians and policies of the last thirty years; they need to change or autocracy and authoritarianism will win.

  • @Paul Murray.

    “She applied for UK citizenship and failed to supply all the necessary documentation (specifically her passport). She consequently received a standard letter. Nobody is deporting her. It’s an easily resolved admin problem”

    While parts of the story have been stretched (it was described as an 85 page form but in her case I reckon 40 pages maximum will have been printed off) it did end with it not being easy to resolve issues and this is mostly correct – I do not think that you can describe contact with the Home Office as “an easily resolved admin problem”. For example, there used to be guidance that decisions should be made within 6 months however this had already been dropped and if it’s taking longer than that (as you can realistically expect under current circumstances) you can request your ID docs be returned to you but very little you can do to speed up the decision. At this point the majority will be mainly limited to requesting their MP tries to chase it up. Surely easier to have some form of helpline (even email based) than countless MP’s being asked to do menial work?

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Dec '16 - 11:50pm

    @ Frankie, ‘The role of the Liberals is to hold up a faint beacon of light and to try to prevent the darkness from both left and right…’ Thank you for that lovely vision, which I share. A little light, very small, seemed to have dawned on Jackie Ashley of the Guardian, who wrote on Tuesday on the Leader page under the heading ‘The liberal fightback starts now. Can the Lib Dems lead it?’ I thought, it actually started in June 2015, but better for you to realise late than never.
    @ Peter Watson, you are right to ask for greater articulacy on what we want from the EU, as these articles and comments show, but I think we are probably all agreed at least on no closer union and Cameron’s plan being all right as far as it went. It seems to me we do also agree now on wanting some management of immigration, perhaps aligning it to jobs available, perhaps asking for British people to have first choice; and maybe the thinking is becoming more consensual on wanting to bring back more powers to the states and closer involvement of national with EU parliamentarians. But much needs to be debated and agreed – led by Tim I hope, and perhaps debated at York in the spring.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Dec '16 - 1:34am

    A very stimulating debate from a fairly routine piece!


    The Dutch womans scenario must be expanded . Can you explain this ? It is not possible to expel a Dutch citizen with a British husband and two British kids. If your sister -in-law has the papers of settlement based on income etc and all the added nonsense succesive governments have introduced , none of which I approve of for British spouses she is safe ,in this country . Her situation is like that of any foreign national outside the EU , abide by the agreement in force at the time of settlement and you are settled !

    Governments have horribly let down the people of this country and those who love the people of this country . Everybody who marries a British citizen , male or female , now thankfully , gay or straight , should be allowed to remain here . No income requirements . No job opportunities. Thats as it was !

    Our party needs to continue the excellent attitude Tim shows in his patriotism . Back the best for Britain and all who sail in her !

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Dec '16 - 1:56am

    Important additional explanation re; the comments by Eddie and others , me above also.

    The article in the Guardian today , more than the BBC report apparently , makes it clear , the Dutch woman is a victim of government incompetence and outrageous treatment .

    One of the very important aspects that makes me , over the years , a radical and moderate classical and social Liberal , is this sort of unbelievable yet , to some of us , all too believable story . Government is as much the problem at times, as the solution. Union or none , public or private , when shall the voice of the individual vulnerable be heard. Read the Guardian . The Home Office staff, not Mrs Rudd, not Mrs May , not Mr uncle Tom Cobley or any politician . A government official . For which , read bureaucrat !

    Mr Corbyn may love his civil sevice and the like , union dominated party . I want to advocate for those like this Dutch woman and her family and hold the safe to do a bad job fraternity to account !

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Dec '16 - 2:55am

    Thanks Lorenzo. She’s given up on the application for the time being because it’s proven too difficult for her and with too much documentation required. Something to do with payslips, which she has, but she has a gap and they aren’t happy about it or something. I think they also aren’t happy with the fact she’s just started working for her husband, but it should never result in a “prepare to leave” letter that others have been getting. She came here legally! EU citizen with EU passport.

  • @Lorenzo
    I read the Guardian article yesterday after seeing Eddie’s comment, and to be honest it struck me as a non-story. I’ve seen the permanent residency form and it states very clearly in the guidance that applications are “unlikely” to be approved without sight of original documents. Despite this, the Dutch lady in question sent in a photocopy of her passport and was surprised when she was not successful.

    If she needed her passport back in a hurry, she had two options available to her: she could have taken it 10 miles to a council office and had them verify it on the spot; or she could have sent it in and then requested it back at any time, a service which usually takes less than 10 days. So when she claims that supplying her passport would have meant not having it for “four to six months”, she is simply wrong.

    It should also be stressed that she does not need to apply for a residency certificate at all – it will not affect her legal right to be in the country in any way, she was doing it entirely off her own bat.

  • jedibeeftrix 30th Dec '16 - 1:31pm

    @ Frankie – “The problem is jedibeeftrix is if liberalism dies something else will arise to fight the Tory hegemony.”

    Totally agree, but my post was more of a joke about the public perception of a party that spends it’s time worrying about the using the term “fag packet”.

  • Peter Watson 31st Dec '16 - 5:22pm

    @Katharine Pindar “It seems to me we do also agree now on wanting some management of immigration”
    This would represent a pretty seismic shift from the position adopted by Lib Dems on this site and elsewhere, and unfortunately I suspect that it would be difficult to row back from some of the rhetoric (particularly when concerns about immigration were countered with accusations of xenophobia and racism). But it is the sort of topic that should have been addressed more openly before/during/since the EU referendum. Elsewhere Duncan Brack writes, “while I believe that Tim Farron’s declaration that Liberal Democrats see the UK’s future lying within the EU as absolutely right, we also need to respond to the concerns that drove people to vote leave – including economic and political inequality, powerlessness, the feeling that they’ve been ignored by the elites, and much more.” and I believe this is a very important message for Lib Dems to heed.

  • Katharine Pindar 1st Jan '17 - 7:41pm

    Hi again, Peter! I’ve just caught up with this thread too, thanks. Yes, I did think my statement about us agreeing on ‘some management of immigration’ would be controversial, and it’s no less so when one reads the spirited defence of unrestricted immigration by, not a Lib Dem, but Jeremy Corbyn himself, and also the awful reports of EU citizens in Britain applying for citizenship and being told to leave. I hope our party does agree on wanting largely unrestricted free movement within the EU to continue, and if there are caveats they need spelling out. I’m glad too that you have reminded me of Duncan Brack’s very relevant wider comments, which I think require further responses from us. As I’ve asked elsewhere, we are needing more detail on what we can offer on all those fronts.

  • Nina Stevens 2nd Jan '17 - 9:27am

    Most of this moderate and reasonable discussion completely ignores current political discourse both in the U.K. and other Western countries. The public are currently being misinformed by largely foreign owned media and are communicating through social media which encourages tunnel thinking and extreme positions. There is no effective opposition in Parliament even when Theresa May is not ignoring it. The Liberal Party is the only political organisation representing moderate opinion in Parliament and it cannot seek to do this by ignoring post-truth discourse and the propaganda spread by less reputable organisations. Farage dominates the media by making populist statements; we need more challenging voices from moderates.

  • Katharine Pindar 2nd Jan '17 - 5:58pm

    Nina, that’s a good wake-up call, and after hearing on Radio 4 about post-truth discourse, and realising the influence of preconceived opinions and social media spreading stories that many people want to hear, I do understand better what we are up against. However, I am glad to say that by overcoming my anti-Murdoch prejudice and reading The Times quite regularly I have discovered some thinking that Liberal Democrats can agree with, even sometimes from the Leader column, but particularly from Matthew Parris. The paper didn’t have the grace to mention Lady Williams or Sir Steve Webb in its New Year Honours coverage, but it does shed a little light sometimes.

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