Gavin Barwell’s excellent book “Chief of Staff” is about his two years from 2017 in Theresa May’s government, and much of it is dominated by Brexit negotiations. In one chapter he lists and details the reasons why it was so difficult to “get Brexit done”.
As I started reading that list I thought it would be fun to translate them into reasons why our projects and programmes are sometimes so frustrusting. For example, the first one is “The government hadn’t prepared for a Leave victory” which is much like a CEO announcing a big strategy without consulting any of those people who might implement it.
However, as I progressed through the list I realised that so few of the reasons translated. In government, or at least at that time in that government for that issue, there was so much opposition. Here are some of those points from the book, in the author’s words (plus some elaboration from me):
- The EU couldn’t allow Brexit to be seen as a success.
- The absence of a devolved government in Northern Ireland made things even harder.
- The coalition government removed the ultimate threat governments previously used to get key policies through the House of Commons. (That is, Theresa May couldn’t threaten to call an election due to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.)
- The collapsed leadership election robbed Theresa of the authority a victory over a leading Brexiteer would have given her. (Theresa May, originally a supporter of Remain, won her party’s leadership contest because her opponent withdrew, so she could not demonstrate that she also represented the Leave wing of her party.)
- Not seeking a cross-party consensus at the outset.
- The snap election that made things harder. (She called an election to increase her parliamentary majority; in fact, the result reduced it.)
- Parliament and the country remained deadlocked and became increasingly polarised.
What was striking to me about this list is how different it is to the work so many of us do every day.
We may think our jobs are tough, but let’s be thankful that at least we are all—formally, structurally—on the same side. When deciding what to do we can look up the hierarchy and appeal to a common project or organisational goal. If we disagree we can escalate to whoever it is that sits above us all.
(Yes, sometimes people in our own organisations may seem to work against us, but if ever that is true then it’s an organisational failure, not a feature.)
Sometimes I also rely on this when trying to resolve differences between people—reminding myself and others of why we’re here. There is almost always a common cause in our department or organisation that we can agree on. Then it’s a case of understanding where our differences lie, and seeing how to balance those with the higher goal.
This is quite unlike the world of national, international and party politics. So let’s be thankful for that, at least.