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Mandrake: The top secret Brexit department that made David Davis irrelevant

David Davis' departure as Brexit Secretary was even more of anti-climax than many might have imagined. Picture: Leon Neal/PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Tim Walker’s diary focuses on the secretive Border Planning Group, our new trade envoy to Libya and what Donald Trump has been telling Nigel Farage.

PM’s top secret Brexit department

After being on the brink of resignation for so long now, David Davis’s departure as Brexit Secretary was even more of an anti-climax than many might have imagined.

‘It isn’t simply that you can’t miss a man who never seemed to do anything, but Davis’s department had become something of a front for the Border Planning Group, which is doing all the real work ahead of Brexit,’ whispers my man in Whitehall. ‘This highly secretive outfit was set up by Theresa May precisely because she could see that the Department for Exiting the EU wasn’t getting anything done. Believe me, it’s the BPG that is calling the shots.’

There are members of the government who are unaware of its work and most backbenchers – such as Anna Soubry, when I met her last week – admit not to have heard of it. Outside contractors who have to deal with it are required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Google the BPG and startlingly little comes up, but I gather its work cuts across 26 government departments. Davis had to work ‘alongside’ it, but was effectively subordinate to it. A question about it in the House from the Dover MP Charlie Elphicke went unnoticed at the time, but the response from the financial secretary Mel Stride was the most that’s ever been said about it on the record: ‘The BPG is a cross-Whitehall group of senior officials set up by Permanent Secretaries. The role of the BPG is to provide oversight of and assurance of departmental planning for border-related issues arising from leaving the EU. The Border Coordination Team within HMRC supports the work of the BPG and reports into it. The budget for this team for 2017-18 is £2.5m.’

Trust Henry

Libyans could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic about General Muammar Gaddafi after the country tipped into anarchy following David Cameron’s decision to assist with eliminating the despot in 2011.

The Brextremist Tory MP and one-time Africa minister Sir Henry Bellingham, who backed Cameron’s intervention in the country, has lately been installed by Theresa May as Britain’s trade envoy to the failed state.

Sir Henry has good reason to be interested in Libya. He pockets £4,000 a month as a chairman of an outfit called Pathfinder Minerals Ltd, which is in the business of exploiting the mineral wealth of Africa.

His appointment to the role in 2014 proved controversial after it emerged he had sent letters supporting Pathfinder before being appointed to his position.

One critic said at the time his appointment ‘corroded trust in politics’.

Still, Sir Henry denied any conflict of interest at the time and does so again now. ‘I made it very clear that if in the improbable event that any of the four companies I am involved with decided to have dealings with Libya, I would declare an interest and stand back from any involvement,’ he assures Mandrake.

Trump’s man

In the event that Nigel Farage manages to play his game of golf with Donald Trump during his visit to these shores this week – Theresa May isn’t keen on the two plotters getting together – the president will undoubtedly want to know how Brexit is proceeding.

Mandrake hears from a well-placed source that Farage has been telling friends that Trump unambiguously told him he wants to see the EU break up before he leaves office. The president’s motivations for this seem obvious enough.

Farage isn’t currently speaking to me so I can only say I will happily pass on whatever comment he cares to make about this when he deigns to do so.

History boys

Mandrake hears that Geordie Greig – soon to take over as editor of the Daily Mail – has managed to find the time to talk to Chris Bryant about his grandfather Sir Louis Greig for a book that the Labour MP is writing called Glamour Boys.

What Geordie has to say will be interesting since Sir Louis was chairman of the All England Club in 1939 when the German tennis ace Gottfried von Cramm was banned from playing at Wimbledon because the powers-that-be didn’t care for his outspoken opposition to Adolf Hitler.

Greig has touched on his grandfather’s soft spot for Germany at the time in his biography of him called The King Maker: The Man Who Save George VI.

In April I disclosed that the Mail on Sunday – the paper still currently edited by Greig – had spiked a feature about how Wimbledon had wronged von Cramm.

The player’s story is soon to be turned into a feature film called Poster Boy with a script by Patrick Ryecart.

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