Ivan Rogers’ bombshell resignation as our EU ambassador has underlined the risks and confusion at the heart of the government’s Brexit strategy. Here are four key takeaways.
Patsy may be chosen as new envoy
The most striking passages in Rogers’ email explaining to his staff why he was quitting focussed on the need for diplomats to give the government “unvarnished….nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27” EU countries.
He added: “I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power. I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.”
Theresa May is already under pressure to appoint a true believer in Brexit to replace Rogers. Even if she doesn’t, the new ambassador will find it hard to speak truth to power now that he or she has seen how Rogers has been savaged in the pro-Brexit press for doing precisely that. The risk is that the government gets stuck in denial and then messes up Brexit.
Civil service may get politicised
Iain Duncan-Smith, the former Tory leader, today attacked Rogers for being “untrustworthy”, suggesting that he had last month leaked advice to the government that negotiating a new trade deal with the EU could take up to a decade. The pro-Brexit politician didn’t give any evidence for this accusation leading Paul Ricketts, former head of the foreign office, to say Rogers was the victim of a “smear” campaign.
One of the strengths of Britain’s system of government is that it has a high-quality civil service that serves ministers, whatever their political persuasion. Attacks on their integrity undermine the whole system unless the government comes to their defence – given that they cannot defend themselves.
So far ministers have been conspicuous by their silence, a point made by the head of the union for top civil servants. One is reminded of the government’s silence for several days after pro-Brexit attack dogs lambasted high court judges after they ruled that May couldn’t trigger Article 50 without parliament’s approval – and even then gave only lukewarm defence of judicial independence, another pillar of our political system.
Government still doesn’t have Brexit plan
In another key passage, Rogers wrote: “We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.”
Unless May has been keeping her plan secret from her ambassador, this suggests that the government is still unclear what it wants to achieve from Brexit – despite charging headlong to trigger Article 50 by end-March. After pressure from MPs last month, the prime minister agreed to publish her Brexit plan before launching formal divorce talks.
A coalition of civil society organisations, including InFacts, have launched a campaign, called #WhatsThePlan, for this plan to be published this month in the form of a green paper. But David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has said the plan won’t be produced in January. Given Rogers’ comments about the lack of negotiating objectives, it’s not surprising the government isn’t ready. But this also means parliament and the people may not have enough time to scrutinise whatever it finally produces.
UK doesn’t have much negotiating expertise
Several passages in Rogers’ letter underline how poorly prepared we are for the coming negotiations on a technical level. He wrote: “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council.”
The ambassador went on to say: “The structure of the UK’s negotiating team and the allocation of roles and responsibilities to support that team, needs rapid resolution. The working methods which enable the team in London and Brussels to function seamlessly need also to be strengthened.”
Rogers’ departure – and the resignation of his deputy in November – won’t make it any easier to get the necessary expertise. Nicholas MacPherson, former head of the Treasury, lamented this in this tweet, saying: “Ivan Rogers huge loss. Can’t understand wilful&total destruction of EU expertise.”