Creation of Brexit department was a mistake, says former minister

It was a mistake to create a separate department to deal with Brexit, a former minister has said.

Former prime minister Theresa May's de facto deputy Sir David Lidington said the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) should have been "an annex to the Cabinet Office and Number 10".

The former Cabinet Office minister added that with a different approach to Brexit negotiations at the start of the process "it would have been possible then to come to the deal earlier".

DExEU was closed on Friday 31 January, Brexit deadline day.

"I think that, as is now recognised, it was a mistake to create DExEU (The Department for Exiting the European Union) as a separate department.

"Now, that's not to denigrate the officials or the ministers who work there, but the fact you had then DExEU try to do things and Number 10 and the Cabinet trying to do things as well... and the contingency planning as a function sits in the Cabinet Office anyway, because all this stuff about the reasonable worst-case scenario, that is standard civil contingency planning language.

"That was how the Cabinet Office was looking at, well, what happens if your DExEU mitigation doesn't work, what happens then?

"But trying to knit that together just took more energy and time than should have been necessary.

"So in my ideal world, I would not have invented DExEU as a department.

"I would have had a big unit, but I would have located it as, you know, an annex to the Cabinet Office and Number 10, because the Prime Minister was going to be driving the negotiations," Sir David told the Institute for Government as part of their "Ministers Reflect" series.

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A member of protocol carries the folded Union flag past the EU flag after it was removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A member of protocol carries the folded Union flag after it was removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
The Union flag is lowered and removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Pro-Brexit supporters gather in Parliament Square, London, as the UK prepared to leave the European Union at 11pm UK time. Picture date: Friday January 31, 2020. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage celebrates during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. officially departs the EU at 11 p.m. local time, midnight in Brussels (2300 GMT, 6 p.m. EST). The move comes 3½ years after the country voted by a margin of 52%-48% to walk away from the club that it had joined in 1973. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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A member of protocol removes the Union flag from the atrium of the Europa building in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)
Großbritannien hat die EU verlassen. Während Hunderte Brexit-Anhänger in London jubelten, wurde in Schottland und Nordirland protestiert.
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A countdown to Brexit timer and the colors of the British Union flag illuminate the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London, England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
The Union flag is folded and removed after being lowered from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Brexit supporters trample on a European Union flag during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A projection appears on a cliff in Ramsgate, southern England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Brexit supporters celebrate during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain leaves the European Union after 47 years, leaping into an unknown future in historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A projection appears on a cliff in Ramsgate, southern England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
French gendarmes walk by as British living in France attend a gathering to express their sprit of Europe despite the withdrawal Brexit agreement and the UK's departure from the EU, in a street closed to the British Embassy in Paris, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain leaves the European Union after 47 years, leaping into an unknown future in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
An image of the clock face of 'Big Ben' is projected onto the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London as Britain left the European Union, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
An image of the clock face of 'Big Ben' is projected onto the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London as Britain left the European Union, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A Brexit supporter celebrates during a rally in Parliament square in London, England as Britain left the European Union on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Protesters from the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit take part in a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border, Ireland, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Protesters from the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit take part in a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border, Ireland, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Brexit supporters gather during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT Friday, the first nation in the bloc to do so. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Britain's Union flag is lowered form its pole outside the European Parliament Friday Jan. 31, 2020, in Strasbourg, eastern France. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT Friday, the first nation in the bloc to do so. (AP Photo)
Brexit supporters pose with the Union Jack at the Cenotaph, in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Rain drops are seen on the umbrella of a Brexit supporter during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Passengers arrive to embark on the last Eurostar train of the day at Gare du Nord Station in Paris to go to St Pancras International train station in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. is due to leave the EU on Friday, the first nation to leave the bloc since its inception. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
The Union flag is lowered and removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
The five-year old Elisa Saemann, left, and her seven-year old sister Katie hold a placard during a rally by anti-Brexit protesters outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A Brexit supporter holds a British flag during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A projection by the Mayor of London’s office displaying 'London - everyone welcome' is seen at Piccadilly Circus in London, Britain January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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He also revealed that the cross-party talks between the Conservatives and the Labour Party came "pretty close" to finding a compromise over Brexit.

"I think, at the end of the day, perhaps late in the day, it was just there was an unwillingness on both sides, I think, to make the final leap.

"The two issues on which it broke down were customs and a second referendum, where we couldn't quite get agreement," Sir David added.

Asked whether Mrs May was to blame for what happened, Sir David said "ultimately every prime minister has responsibility for what happens in their government".

Theresa May
Theresa May set up DExEU (Jonathan Brady/PA)

He said: "I think that, I do think the mistakes were made early. I think that if you go back to 2016, I don't think that there was sufficient recognition of, you know, how hard some of the political choices in the negotiations would be.

"And I think it is possible – you never know, we are looking at it with hindsight, but it is possible – what I think should happen is there should have been a different approach to the negotiations at the start, because I think it would have been possible then to come to the deal earlier.

"And possibly, you know, an attempt to reach out to the other parties early on, saying: 'This is a national decision, we have had a vote in the referendum, now we need to move forward together.'"

The Brexit department was set up by Mrs May in 2016 in the wake of the referendum result.

DExEU had three Brexit secretaries in its three years – starting with David Davis, who resigned in 2018 in disagreement with Mrs May's plan to leave the EU.

He was followed by now-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who also resigned over Mrs May's approach four months after taking up the position

Stephen Barclay took over in November 2018 and was kept on by Mr Johnson after he took over as Conservative Party leader.

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