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Patrick Diamond

August 22nd, 2023

How Brexit became an exercise in “muddling through”

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Patrick Diamond

August 22nd, 2023

How Brexit became an exercise in “muddling through”

0 comments | 15 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Brexit has fundamentally altered the UK’s relationship with Europe, but it has yet to redefine the structures and processes of the British state, writes Patrick Diamond. Rather, the institutional response to Brexit has become an exercise in “muddling through”, which is increasingly coming under strain.

This article is part of our series on policymaking in the UK after Brexit. For more analysis, visit the focus page


Although Brexit is depicted as a seismic shock that will profoundly alter the politics, policy and polity of the UK, EU withdrawal has not yet dismantled the traditional structures and processes of the British state. In the first phase of decoupling the UK from Europe, the “machinery of government” has been “muddling through”. However, the slog of making Brexit work has barely begun. The UK has been in a holding pattern since it departed, with the problem of Northern Ireland casting a long shadow over the withdrawal process.

The slog of making Brexit work has barely begun

The prolonged process of withdrawal has shone a spotlight on the efficacy of the UK’s machinery of government. Moreover, post-Brexit governance and policymaking are inevitably aggravating long-standing tensions. The British civil service is no longer viewed as a “Rolls-Royce”, while disagreements with ministers have escalated. Even so, Brexit does not yet amount to a critical juncture for the British state. Instead, a process of accommodation and gradual modification of policymaking institutions is unfolding, just as thirty years ago the British civil service oversaw incremental adaptation to European Community (EC) membership.

The Westminster model and the British political tradition

The debate about transformation in the structures and processes of the UK state has been shaped by contrasting narratives or “organising perspectives”. The dominant organising narrative in UK politics is the so-called Westminster model. This model elaborates the framework within which the machinery of government operates, conceiving governing as a centralised process comprised of five pillars: the unitary state and the concentration of power at the centre; parliamentary sovereignty; a strong “core” executive; ministerial responsibility; and a reciprocal bargain between ministers and civil servants.

Underpinning the Westminster model are the guiding principles of the British political tradition. Firstly, “a limited, liberal notion of representative democracy” where the executive governs in the national interest and power resides with central government. Secondly, “a conservative notion of responsibility” focused on top-down control and accountability from the centre.

The Westminster model is a “dominant narrative” and “common vocabulary” for understanding UK governance. The virtue of the model is its stability and capacity to withstand external shocks. Certainly, the Westminster model has been challenged by the increasing complexity of the British state: devolution has undermined traditional hierarchies making accountabilities increasingly opaque. Yet the Westminster model and the British political tradition continue to shape how political actors govern state and society, as well as public expectations of government’s role. The Westminster model legitimises the centralisation of power and the view that “central government knows best”.

Navigating Brexit

Following the 2016 referendum, the continuing influence of the Westminster model was exemplified by the efforts of Theresa May’s government to bolster key tenets of the model. Ministers sought to recentralise power in Whitehall and Westminster, upholding the “will of the people”.

The repatriation of powers occurred both downwards from Brussels and upwards from the devolved governments, stretching the “Sewel convention” to breaking point. The 2020 Internal Market Act sought to minimise intra-UK regulatory divergence, bypassing territorial devolution. Yet post-Brexit politics is replete with “wicked” problems that the Westminster model is not well equipped to address. Such governance challenges will severely test the institutional viability of the machinery of government and Westminster model.

The dilemma for UK governments after Brexit is whether to recentralise power through the Westminster model or accept the case for systemic machinery of government reform. Crucially, the literature acknowledges that on leaving Europe, member states make strategic choices about which governing processes and policymaking norms to discard. Ministers decide whether to usher in a period of wholesale change or “fine-tune” existing EU rules and laws.

The monumental step of joining the EC in the 1970s did not bring about a dramatic shift in the UK’s machinery of government, although it did lead to institutional alterations. The historical pattern was of arrangements being grafted onto the dominant Westminster model in an approach characterised by ad hoc adaptation and muddling through. This adaptation entails a process of ‘layering’ where novel structures are imposed on existing institutions.

Layering and muddling through

The absence of outright dismantling is not altogether surprising. As Charles Lindblom (1959) observed decades ago, it is rare that actors in western democracies pursue radical changes in institutions. Governing is about “muddling through”. Of course, policy entrepreneurs seek to exploit windows of opportunity for change, but they acknowledge the constraints under which they operate and the inherently limited nature of knowledge about complex policy problems. Invariably, they opt for “trial and error” incrementalism. Meanwhile, national institutions are “sticky” and relatively impervious to fundamental change.

The Westminster model may not be the most suitable foundation on which to build the post-Brexit policy process

The most likely outcome is that a “layering” process will occur in which new arrangements are bolted onto existing structures and rules. Governing institutions are akin to “geological layers” remoulded over time as new institutions and structures evolve. This process is exactly the pattern that emerged following Brexit. It might be said that history is repeating itself. While layering occurred after Britain joined the EC, it has taken place again following Britain’s departure.

However, the Westminster model may not be the most suitable foundation on which to build the post-Brexit policy process. In fact, this layering process is aggravating Westminster model pathologies. For instance, it is leading to heightened tensions between ministers and officials, increasing the risk of policy failure. The context is such that, as former civil servant Mike Bracken reflects, “Traditional policymaking is largely broken. It is slow, inflexible, unnecessarily complicated, afraid of technology and afraid of change”.

All in all, alterations to the UK’s governing machinery post-Brexit have been modest, reflecting the historical pattern of accommodation and minor modification. Empirically, Brexit has led to piecemeal changes in the UK’s machinery of government and polity. However, Brexit is exposing vulnerabilities within the governing machinery.

As such, UK government will be increasingly prone to policy fiascos as it struggles to determine how to address the mountain of EU policy and regulation on the Statute Book. Thus far, ministers’ responses have varied from ignoring key problems entirely to driving frenetic change through relentless administrative reorganisation. The recurring theme is a governing approach predicated on muddling through.


For more in-depth analysis, see the author’s accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

This article was originally posted on EUROPP – European Politics and Policy blog. All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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About the author

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond is Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former special adviser in 10 Downing Street. He is the author of The End of Whitehall? published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Posted In: Brexit | British and Irish Politics and Policy
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