The UK’s amateurish Brexit approach is heading for national embarrassment

PUBLISHED: 19:32 07 January 2017 | UPDATED: 19:37 07 January 2017

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The departure of Sir Ivan Rogers raises fundamental questions about the government’s Brexit strategy

Exiting the EU is as complex a process for the UK government and its civil service as any faced since the Second World War – and that includes the process that got us into the common market in the first place.

Ministers, from Theresa May down, must take the lead in shaping the strategy, (precious little sign so far), and engaging with their political friends and foes across the EU in working out the best deal open to them, and endeavouring to get it. But for a challenge of this scale and complexity they are going to need the best possible support and advice, negotiating and diplomatic skills. This is not easy to find at the best of times. It is even harder when you have been shredding numbers and lowering morale under David Cameron with a not so covert campaign headed by former Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude aimed at rubbishing the civil service as slow, cumbersome and unimaginative.

Some of the EU negotiations I saw close up with Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister – on the setting up of the European Central Bank, for example, or the region by region agreement on how EU funds were distributed – were hugely complex and difficult. A quick reading of my diaries would convey the often nightmarish and messy nature of the process and the politics. Yet they were as easy as ABC compared with the challenges facing May and Co right now, across every part of government, as the triggering of Article 50 draws nearer.

Tony, Gordon Brown and other ministers would have been on top of as much detail as they needed to be and would do the public and negotiating heavy lifting on the tasks in hand. But beneath them was a whole team of people – dreaded experts so derided by chief Brexiteer Michael Gove during the referendum campaign – who would be doing a load more private heavy lifting for them. The ministers need to know how to drive the car. These are the people who know how to make the engine work.

When it came to Europe none were more important than the senior EU advisors in Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and, crucially, ‘our man in UKREP,’ the government operation in Brussels. The men and (all too infrequently) women who, when the PM left for another issue, another meeting, another country, stayed to keep the wheels of the strategy moving, and keep the PM and his core team in touch.

As with any walk of life, some were better than others. But some were truly exceptional public servants. I think Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron would all put Sir Ivan Rogers, who has stepped down as Britain’s top diplomat in Brussels, in that category. Clearly Theresa May does not.

Some of the commentary around Sir Ivan’s decision centred on the idea that May would be better served by someone more personally attuned to a pro-Brexit position. This may be all of a piece with the Farageist Fantasyland approach to Brexit that seems to have infected our politics. Inevitably the former UKIP leader was among those first out of the traps to welcome Sir Ivan’s departure and to urge more civil servants to follow suit. However it totally misunderstands what ambassadors are for. They are there to make sure those in their province understand the positions of the UK government. But equally they are there to make sure the UK government has full sight of all the traffic coming in the other direction. That does mean speaking truth unto power. And it means knowing your patch better than anyone else, including the big bosses back in London.

The most useless and irritating ambassadors we came across were those whose main desire was to spend as much time as possible rubbing shoulders with the Prime Minister, in order to tell him as many of the things they imagined he wanted to hear as possible, and who fretted more over their place in a limousine convoy or dinner table seating plan than whether and how a policy objective could be met.

The best ones - this could also be irritating but at least it is the kind of irritation activity that takes guts - were those willing and able to say things their political leaders did not find easy listening. Above all the good ones understood the issues inside out and knew how to build the alliances needed to win support for positions we wanted to develop.

‘It’s not quite as simple as that Prime Minister’ was not always the statement of someone trying to thwart, Yes Minister style, but a statement of fact rooted in knowledge which needed to be shared. Sir Ivan’s sin seems to have been to spell out just how unsimple the road ahead may be, especially given it appears that even now, according to his valedictory email to staff, Mrs May has no sense of what her objectives for the upcoming negotiations are. For her chief negotiator in Brussels not to know her objectives suggests a lack of strategy or a lack of teamwork. Probably both.

Britain voted to leave the EU. To hear the Farages and the Johnsons and the media lie machine behind them what was on the ballot paper was not just a box for a cross but an easily understood and easily delivered outcome that would make us all better off and contended as we looked at our new Nirvana and said to each other ‘well that taking back control was easy enough wasn’t it?’ Back in the real world ... Sir Ivan discovered that in Brexit Britain real world advice is not welcome.

The Brextremists in politics and media appear to think the role of a diplomat is to pretend that black is white when it may well be many messy shades of grey. Sir Ivan’s crime, in their eyes, has been to set down - in writing, as the best diplomatic advice usually is - a genuine estimation of the difficulties that lie ahead. His reward for this act of doing his job, honestly and in good faith, has been to be leaked and briefed against, abused and marginalised and - lethal to a diplomat – made to appear irrelevant in the eyes of those he was serving. All because he felt it was his professional responsibility to delve into the issues a little more deeply than Brextremist journalists or MPs, who felt he needed to be more optimistic about the land of milk and honey that Brexit was, surely, bound to deliver.

Sir Ivan is far from being alone in fearing that the way May and her team are going about the whole process - operating according to what they hope will happen as opposed to doing the things needed to make things happen - will lead to Britain ending up in the worst of all positions, out of the EU but without the deals needed in the timeframe needed to have a chance of avoiding economic and political 
calamity.

We should perhaps not be too surprised, as this is developing into something of a pattern in the May government, egged on by the rabid Brexit Lie Machine in the media. MPs doing their job in demanding answers to difficult questions on the government’s approach... Judges doing their job in pointing out the centrality of Parliament to the making and unmaking of laws... Citizens using the courts to fight for their rights... Diplomats pointing out that a bilateral trade deal with China and the other great powers is unlikely to be as beneficial as the bigger deals we can do through the EU ... It may be the Daily Mail that came up with the ‘enemies of the people’ headline. But the mindset stems from the top.

It doesn’t make for a good flow of honest advice. It doesn’t make for good negotiation. And it doesn’t make for good team building either.

One of the most important skills of leadership is the ability to build and inspire a team. Given our system, in government often that includes people you did not necessarily pick to be in your team. Back to the Blair experience. Yes, he had a small and close knit group of trusted political advisers he had worked with in Opposition who moved in with him in government. But he and we had to work with the people - Sir Ivan among them - who had equally worked under John Major and the Tory government we had fought so hard to eject. One or two were weak. Some were average. Some, like Sir Ivan, were superb. I think of someone like Sir John Holmes who was not only the main advisor on Europe but also became a key member of TB’s team in the Northern Ireland peace process. Or Sir John Sawers who went on to be head of MI6. Or Sir Nigel Sheinwald, who went on to be ‘our man in Washington’, or Matthew Rycroft who is now Ambassador to the UN, or Sir Stephen Wall, one of Sir Ivan’s predecessors, who often said in no uncertain terms that he disagreed with TB. I have no idea how they voted or whether personally they felt attuned to the politics or personality of the PM. It was irrelevant. But I know they felt like - and they were - respected and valued members of the team. And I heard every one of them speak truth unto power at times.

It may be that Mrs May has found in Sir Tim Barrow a perfect replacement for Sir Ivan. Let’s hope so. And let’s hope she and her political advisors treat him better than the man they are replacing; and let’s hope a strategy emerges sooner rather than later.

May and the three-headed ministerial Brexiteer team of Johnson-Davis-Fox are going to need exceptional support to get anywhere near a half decent outcome to this process. Losing a team member of such expertise and experience is careless and foolish. They do not grow on trees. And she is going to need a lot more than the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ ‘we’re going to have a red white and blue Brexit’ type advice she has thus far been getting from her political team in Number 10.

Given how unserious and amateurish the whole operation seems to be she might as well have replaced Sir Ivan with the comedian who writes the Daily Express front page headlines on how swimmingly it is all going. At least Sir Tim will know a little more about the detail of what is involved in this unbelievably complex process that June 23 has unleashed. We will have to hope he is allowed to be heard throughout government, able to tell the truth about what is happening inside the negotiations, without danger of the messenger being shot. Otherwise there is a distinct possibility that Brexit means shambles, and then disaster.

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