THE Tory Government’s approach to Brexit was thrown into total disarray yesterday with the shock resignation of the UK ambassador to the European Union.
Sir Ivan Rogers resigned even though his term of office had 10 months to run, and he was expected to play a leading role in the Brexit negotiations.
His departure brought immediate condemnation from sources as diverse as the Scottish Government and Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the former Treasury Secretary who intervened so powerfully for the No side in the independence referendum. Referring to the fact that Rogers’ predecessor Sir Jon Cunliffe and his fellow civil service experts on the EU Michael Ellam and Tom Scholar have also been sent to other areas of Government, Macpherson tweeted: “Ivan Rogers huge loss. Can’t understand wilful and total destruction of EU expertise, with Cunliffe, Ellam and Scholar also out of loop.”
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The Scottish Government’s response was swift and damning. Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, said: “Such a resignation at such a juncture is another deeply troubling sign for the UK’s future relations with the EU, and is yet more evidence of the complete chaos at the heart of the Prime Minister’s position. If respected and experienced UK civil servants are so clearly unable to do their jobs as a result of the shambolic UK Government approach, it hardly inspires confidence that the UK Government will fare well in the tough negotiations that lie ahead.
“Being part of the European single market is vital for Scotland’s future economic wellbeing and the lack of any clarity from the UK Government threatens Scotland’s place in that single market. It is now essential that the Prime Minister sets out in detail what relationship the UK Government will be seeking with the EU and how it intends to achieve it.”
It was two little words of a leak that ended the diplomatic career of Rogers, a noted Europhile who was given the position of UK Permanent Representative to the European Union by former prime minister David Cameron. When Rogers advised the Cabinet last October that negotiating post-Brexit trade deals might take “10 years” – he was merely representing the views of the other EU countries, but there’s good reason to believe that was his assessment as well.
When that “10 years” advice became public just before Prime Minister Theresa May was sent to Coventry by EU leaders in Brussels in mid-December, Rogers’ position became untenable – Westminster sources said May and her Government just didn’t like his message, which did not accord with their “two year” Brexit claims.
Rogers, also a former adviser to Tony Blair, decided he had to jump before he was shot, and walked away from his £175,000-a-year post. His departure sent the little world of Westminster into meltdown, not least because there is no obvious replacement for him. Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage called for a “clearout” of the Foreign Office, adding: “I think it would be appropriate if a lot more people in that position, British ambassadors, left. The world has changed. The political establishment in this country and the diplomatic service just doesn’t accept the [Brexit] vote.”
Ukip’s Brexit spokesman Gerard Batten said Farage himself should be given the job, but his former leader replied: “It would be lots of fun but it’s never going to happen.”
Other Brexiteers welcomed Rogers’ resignation. Arron Banks, funder of the Leave campaign and Ukip, said: “This is a man who claimed it could take up to 10 years to agree a Brexit deal. He is far too much of a pessimist and yet another of the establishment’s pro-EU old guard. He has at least done the honourable thing in resigning.”
There were many protests of anger at the news, however, including fears that the civil service and diplomatic corps would be silenced if they expressed Brexit doubts.
Mike Russell, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Exiting Europe said: “His enormous knowledge and experience of Europe should have been invaluable to any government but instead there appears to have been an increasing distance between him and his current employers. “Brexiteers didn’t want to – and still don’t want to – listen to the truth about the difficulty and damage their chosen route out of Europe is causing and will continue to cause. In the end I suspect he had just had enough of the deaf ears and foolish insistence of those who knew much less than he did. I had a very useful hour with him in October and his growing despair at the UK Government and its refusal to face reality was pretty clear.”
Lord Mandelson, a former EU trade commissioner, said: “Everyone knows that civil servants are being increasingly inhibited in offering objective opinion and advice to ministers. Our negotiation as a whole will go nowhere if ministers are going to delude themselves about the immense difficulty and challenges Britain faces in implementing the referendum decision.”
A host of MPs and MEPs expressed similar sentiments, but the UK Government would only say Rogers was “leaving early” and had taken the decision to allow a successor to be appointed “before the UK invokes Article 50 by the end of March.”