03 January 2017

It is rare for the departure of a government official to be the subject of so much instant comment. But in a year which will be dominated by Brexit, the decision by the UK’s top representative in Brussels to leave a few months before schedule is big news, says Jill Rutter. 

As the UK’s EU Ambassador since 2013, Sir Ivan Rogers was the lead Brussels-based official on David Cameron’s failed renegotiation bid. He hit the headlines again last year after his report on Brexit, which claimed that the process could take 10 years, was leaked.

But Rogers was always planning to go in October 2017. This leaving date – straight after French and German presidential elections – would have left the UK Government without one of its top negotiators just as talks got serious.  

Whatever has prompted his decision to go earlier, it is undoubtedly much better to have someone there who will see out the two years from triggering Article 50, which is still expected in the spring. A new appointment will expect to be in post for the duration.

Nevertheless, this is not a great time for change at UKRep (the official body that represents the UK in the EU). Although the Department for Exiting the EU is about to be strengthened by the arrival of an additional director general – Alex Ellis, fresh from his post as Ambassador to Brazil – UKRep is already scheduled to lose Rogers’ number 2, Shan Morgan, who will become permanent secretary in Wales.

To lose the top two officials at the same time, risks the loss of big networks of contacts and potential capital assembled over years which could have been useful in negotiations.

Some might consider Rogers’ job a poisoned chalice – and that impression will be confirmed if rumours continue to abound that he paid the price for confronting the UK Government with unpalatable truths.

But the Foreign Office, which has seen its influence on European matters diminish over recent years with the loss of the top EU adviser job in London and the UKRep job to HM Treasury, may see this as a chance to grab back a top role in the negotiations. Former Treasury permanent secretary Nick Macpherson has already taken to Twitter to bemoan not just the loss of EU expertise through Rogers’ departure – but also the dearth of Treasury candidates to replace him.

The Foreign Office is already filling one gap by providing the UK’s commissioner from its ambassadorial ranks. But the Prime Minister may seek to appoint someone she knows and has confidence in as her own person in the role – which would point to someone with a bigger domestic policy pedigree. Whatever happens, the next appointee needs to come with a developed understanding of the way Brussels works.

At the end of last year, there were a lot of uncertainties about the Government’s plans for Brexit – but there did appear to be clarity on the official leadership.

Now, at the start of the year of Brexit, that has suddenly become less clear. 

Comments

I wonder if there is a case for replacing Sir Ivan with a political appointee of Cabinet rank? I realise this will not please the FCO or HMT but it seems to me that this might be one of those situations in which a political appointment would be able to do the job better. (Precedents include the US Ambassador to the UN, which is a Cabinet post, and Chris Patten as the last Governor of Hong Kong, which was not a Cabinet post, but for which his political connections and experience were important).

If Sir Ivan Rogers was planning to go in October 2017 it makes a lot of sense to have someone else in sooner, so they can be there "at the start". Though this idea has not been suggested ..!

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