Yesterday was a significant day for those who follow the minutiae of Brexit, for those of us who try to ascertain what is actually going despite the cloud of obfuscation and media distortion.

For months the answer to what Brexit means has been “Brexit means Brexit“, and when Theresa May has been asked for a way forward she has blithely responded that she will not give a blow by blow account of negotiations.

But yesterday that changed.

The question now is “What does a Brexit plan look like?” because Labour has managed to engineer something more concrete from the government. In return for agreeing to support the government’s Brexit timetable (that might be blown off track by events anyway, and Labour’s support for that was never in much doubt), Labour has managed to get a commitment to a Brexit plan from the government. The wording of Labour’s opposition motion is:

“to commit to publishing the government’s plan for leaving the EU before article 50 is invoked”

(more detail from The Guardian here, and some further analysis from The Independent here)

So what does that mean? How could the government actually produce such a plan? What form would it take?

To try to work this out I have consulted pretty widely among former work colleagues of mine who are experts on UK Parliamentary procedure but who, for professional reasons, I cannot quote directly here. No one I have spoken to thinks the government could get away with anything less than a Command Paper, and that a Written Ministerial Statement or a paper deposited in the House of Commons library would be insufficient in this case.

What then is a Command Paper? The National Archives has an excellent explanation of that here. Within the list of what a Command Paper can be is a White Paper, termed as a major policy proposal – this Brexit plan is not something that is up for consultation (a Green Paper). White Papers keep the House of Commons happy in that the paper is deposited there first, then debated, and before wider public debate happens.

But what then goes into a White Paper? Are there any rules as to format or length or degree of detail required? This being the UK, where such things are never stipulated, means that there are not as far as I can tell. It will be the government’s call. There are two precedents, of sorts – the 1971 White Paper that pre-dated the UK’s entry into the then EEC was 48 pages in length (scan of it here). The 2013 Scotland’s Future White Paper that laid out how an independent Scotland would work was a 650-page tome (PDF here). Considering the complexity of the EU today is much greater than the EEC was in the 1970s, it strikes me as only reasonable to assume that a plan to leave today ought to be at least as detailed as the plan to enter was back then. However the government has to muster up this document within a couple of months if the Article 50 trigger by late March 2017 is to be respected.

But then if the government can essentially choose what to include, what should it include, and how should it approach the issue?

It strikes me that the government has three options. First option: it keeps the plan very vague, and angers Keir Starmer (whose idea this was in the first place) and further worries anyone already fearful that Brexit means the government is jumping off the Article 50 cliff without a proper plan. Alternatively it could go for the ‘have cake and eat it’ option, where it proposes something along the lines of what British MPs say they want, namely restricting freedom of movement but preserving membership of the Single Market – that will be rejected out of hand by the EU. Lastly, the plan could actually try to lay out how the Brexit negotiations will work, and what the government wants to do, with a degree of pragmatism and good sense – but doing that will make the Brexiteer back benchers and the tabloid press furious. There are no easy options here, and Barnier and the EU, and Starmer and the rump of Lib Dems in the House of Commons, need to be prepared for all of them.

Starmer has already had a go at outlining his demands for a plan, namely whether it answers if the UK aims to remain within the Customs Union and the EU Single Market, how much information the Brexit Select Committee will get, how much information the Office for Budget Responsibility will receive, how involved the devolved administrations will be, and – more vague – that the plan ought to “have enough detail to build genuine consensus”.

I’d add a few more criteria, although there are undoubtedly many more. In my view the plan ought to at least outline:

  • Whether the Article 50 notification is reversible by the UK alone (i.e. the notification could be withdrawn)
  • What the plan is in the case no agreement can be reached with the EU within the two year period foreseen by Article 50
  • How the UK government wishes to sequence the negotiations – through some sort of interim deal (or not), and roughly what should be achieved at each stage
  • How the UK’s foreign and defence policy commitments in Europe will be impacted by Brexit
  • How the government would like to see Brits living in the rest of the EU treated
  • How the UK will deal with budgetary commitments already made to the EU (inc. on staff salaries), and what long term projects (like Erasmus for example) that it aims to fulfil even after Brexit
  • Whether the UK foresees a sector based approach for Single Market Access, or whether one system for all sectors will be proposed
  • What the UK would like to see from the EU to assist the UK getting its own WTO schedules after Brexit

So let’s start with that, and see where it gets us. There is an opportunity that, finally, this argument about a plan might bring some of the inherent problems with any Brexit variant into sharper relief, and bring down UK politicians’ dogmatic rhetoric to a more practical and pragmatic level.

So, from now on, when you hear the words “Brexit plan“, ask “What should be in that plan?

[UPDATE 20.12.2016, 1200]
Ever one step ahead of Westminster, the Scottish Government is the first out of the blocks with its Brexit Plan, entitled Scotland’s Place in Europe – the 65 page PDF is here. So surely that’s a fair yardstick for how detailed the UK government’s eventual plan ought to be?

[UPDATE 31.1.2017, 1345]
The Wales Government, together with Plaid Cymru, have also now produced a Brexit plan – the 64 page PDF can be found here, and the news story about it here.


  1. What a fantastic original post and update! Great to read something that explains the Parliamentary Pantomime process and gives plenty of links, too – though must say that I might leave 650 page Scottish tome to when I need an induced coma.

    It always strikes me that the mainstay of politicians’ jobs seems to be based around making things take as long as possible – presumably requiring copious lunches and dinners, and much champagne quaffing at the tax payer’s expense. (Me? A cynice? Nah!).

    But to the lay person, all this arguing and spin from the toffs-on-the-top jjust doesn’t answer the questions WE have. People want and need to know things like what jobs are going to be available and how changes in immigration may or may not help that. People want to know what will (or could) happen to their salaries; how much food costs might change; how the value of their house could be effected. No matter how liberal people might be, most do care about their child’s education and whether schools will cope with current migration.

    At the same time, it’s important that we don’t turn into an anti-EU country after Brexit because whatever anyone claims, we need the EU as a friend. I might not be an expert economist but even I can tell that. In order to keep them friendly we need the Brexit Plan to be a bit of “give and take.” We might want to see ourselves as a big roaring lion (or 3), but the EU is like a herd of elephants: they have a long memory and a lot of weight behind them. I’m not a very good patriot, I’m afraid. I just don’t think the UK has the super-clout it needs to make inordinate demands.

    They didn’t invite Theresa for dinner!

    I’ve written on a similar topic to this article on my blog here – do pop over and have a look, comment and all that:

  2. Anonymous

    How would the government be able to answer if the Article 50 notification process is revocable or not? By asking the European Court of Justice (which typically needs a year or two to answer a question), and then include the answer in a report published in March next year?

    Is this question relevant to the court case about how to send the Article 50 notification? That is, is it more likely that the government can send the notification without asking the parliament for an opinion if the notification later can be revoked by the House of Commons, whereas an irrevocable notification is more likely to need prior approval from the parliament? Is there any possibility that the British supreme court will send this question to the European Court of Justice? I’d imagine that Article 50 can’t be triggered until the matter has been resolved in court, so that would delay the process significantly.

  3. John Hully

    It’s so easy to be misled by familiar terms being used in unfamiliar or inaccurate ways: you fool yourself with your own assumptions. The ‘debate’ over UK’s EU membership (which hasn’t really ever been a debate) has always been replete with vague use of terms: “sovereignty”, “control”, “free movement”.

    And now, “plan”.

    In the midst of Wednesday’s Commons debate, with MPs bobbing up and down like Whack-a Mole to demand or to refuse to divulge ”the plan”, Kenneth Clarke introduced a moment of sense by suggesting they should agree what was meant by “a plan”, because vagueness was everywhere.

    Which is why I found this blogpost so useful, because to me a plan is something very specific: a product and tool of project delivery. Different project delivery methodologies have different definitions, but the plan is not just a schedule. It is fundamental to the successful delivery of the project. Most importantly, it’s not the starting point for the project.

    The starting point is agreement that a project is needed. Is there a temporary endeavour to create a specific result? And is there consensus the result is required?

    Even if these two test are passed a project may never get to the planning phase, for many reasons. Most importantly, because there is no sound business case. A cost benefit analysis may show that the project will never recover the cost of the project. Other projects may offer much greater benefits.

    Or the project risks may be unacceptable. Who knew or suspected before the EURef that prerequisites for Brexit would include parliamentary sovereignty to be rolled back to 1610, or judges to be elected? Who said that it would be acceptable for scientific collaboration to be curtailed, or possible necessary for a major upgrade to the Customs’ computer system to manage inspections of every lorry passing through UK ports?

    An important test here is to ask for a list of specific problems, and then to ask whether Brexit is necessary to resolve those problems. Brexit looks like the worst kind of project proposal, because it is a wish. The arguments for Brexit derive from an emotional craving, not as proposed solutions to a specific problem. Brexit means Brexit. Because it is a wish, everyone is defining it in their own terms. To Mr Rees-Mogg it’s an opportunity to replace UK clean air regulations with those in India. (Who said Brexit risked increased pollution, with associated disease and deaths?)

    Moreover, Brexit is not just complicated, but complex. The difference is significant: a jet engine is complicated; it has many parts but the role of every one is known and predictable. The economy, society, culture, are complex: they are unpredictable; they interact in feedback loops.

    The UK government has taken on a programme of work of vast scale which is certainly beyond its current capacity (who’s paying attention to social care?) Already, teams across Whitehall are working on Brexit.

    Without a plan. This is pure disorganisation and waste. Brett has all the symptoms of previous government blunders, and every failed project ever. And then some.

    To summarise, the simplest of improvement cycles:
    1/ where do we need to be?
    2/ where are we now?
    3/ what must we do to cross the gap from 2 to 1?
    4/ how do we do that efficiently and effectively (and is it worth it)?

    May’s government hasn’t decided 1. It assumes it knows 2 as “not 1”. Thus it does not know 3. And it cannot produce 4.

    It does not where it wants to get to, what it must do, what it will cost, or how – even whether – it can do it. It must do this without being in control of global events, while every factor involved s changing. And it’s going to start the project in less than 16 weeks, and finish it by the next General Election.

    Related reading
    Brexit: Manufacturing meaning from meaningless terms
    Brexit: Enough David Brent. This is serious
    “The Blunders of Our Governments” King et al ISBN: 9781780742663

  4. I think this is a very good piece, but there’s a question of whether it’s reasonable to compare it to either ECA or IndyRef. In those cases there was a relatively controlled and controllable set of factors: joining a treaty and establishing a new state. However Brexit is largely out of UK’s hands: while it might be able to say what effects there might be, and what its preferred course is, it cannot say whether those things will be acceptable to the EU27, or even if they’ll be addressed.

    This makes it hard to have either a) a WP that is v.brief and blah-blah, or b) a WP that sets out A50 negotiation objectives in depth. Obviously, b) is better, but that requires a plan, as per my blog yesterday (

    In any case, Gvt will produce bill that simply authorises Gvt to make notification: nothing about process thereafter. In which case, WP will at best summarise SC ruling when it arrives and leave it at that. Bare minimum will be the way forward, precisely to avoid awkward conversations like this one.

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