The civil service prides itself on being able to deliver the crazy and impossible, if ministers so ordain. It even managed to introduce a poll tax for Margaret Thatcher, and to somehow keep it going for three years in the face of riots. But it’s increasingly clear that Brexit may be an impossibility too far, even for Whitehall’s brightest and best.
By Brexit, I mean the hard Brexit policy of leaving the core economic institutions of the European Union – the customs union and the single market – as set out by Theresa May in her Lancaster House speech at the start of the year.
Before then, the working Whitehall assumption had been that Britain would seek to stay in both, while leaving the key decision-making institutions of the EU, including the European parliament and European council, resulting in an “associate member” status similar to that of Norway and Switzerland. The Lancaster House speech put an end to that.