Tuesday 16 January 2018

Theresa May prepares to make major Brexit speech amid accusations by disgruntled top EU civil servant

British PM Theresa May. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images
British PM Theresa May. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

Sam Lister

Theresa May is preparing to make a major speech on Brexit amid accusations by the disgruntled outgoing top UK civil servant in Brussels that the Government lacks an exit strategy.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis are contributing to the content of the address, which is expected later in January.

The Prime Minister will reportedly say Britain will pull out of the single market if the European Union fails to make concessions on freedom of movement, although No 10 sources insisted the claims were speculation.

Mrs May moved swiftly to draw a line under the row sparked by the surprise resignation of UK permanent representative Sir Ivan Rogers by agreeing his replacement within 36 hours of his notice to quit.

He is being succeeded next week by career diplomat Sir Tim Barrow, a former ambassador to Russia described by No 10 as a "seasoned and tough negotiator" who will help the Government make a success of Brexit.

The appointment was welcomed by Labour but Ukip said the role should have been given to a "committed Brexiteer".

In a fiery resignation letter, Sir Ivan had hit out at the "ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking" of politicians and said civil servants still did not know the Government's plans for Brexit.

It sparked a war of words, with prominent Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith and Peter Lilley accusing the diplomat of "sour grapes" while former senior civil servant Lord Ricketts attacked the "denigration" of the long-serving mandarin.

Brussels officials said Sir Ivan's resignation meant the UK had lost a "professional" diplomat who had always "loyally defended" his Government.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Sir Tim was "just the man" to secure the best deal for the UK.

Ivan Rogers, who has resigned as the United Kingdom's ambassador to the European Union. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Ivan Rogers, who has resigned as the United Kingdom's ambassador to the European Union. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

"Tim Barrow has been invaluable since I joined the Foreign Office in July and I want to personally thank him for his relentless energy, wise counsel and steadfast commitment," he said.

"He is just the man to get the best deal for the UK and will lead UKRep with the same skill and leadership he has shown throughout his career. I wish him all the best."

Read more: Ivan Rogers attacks 'muddled thinking' in resignation letter as new EU ambassador who 'believes in Brexit' expected to be appointed

Sir Tim was appointed political director general at the Foreign Office last March after leaving his role in Moscow.

He has had two previous stints working as part of the UK's Permanent Representation to the EU (UKRep).

Mr Davis said: "His knowledge of Brussels means he will be able to hit the ground running at a vital time, and steer UKRep throughout the negotiation period. I am confident that with his help, the UK will be able to forge a new relationship with the EU that works to the mutual benefit of both sides.

Sir Tim said he was "honoured" to be appointed to the crucial role.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We are delighted that Tim Barrow is taking up this role. A seasoned and tough negotiator, with extensive experience of securing UK objectives in Brussels, he will bring his trademark energy and creativity to this job - working alongside other senior officials and ministers to make a success of Brexit."

Ukip former leader Nigel Farage said: "Good to see that the Government have replaced a knighted career diplomat with ... a knighted career diplomat."

The party's Brexit spokesman Gerard Batten said: "This appointment is a disappointment because the last thing we need is another career diplomat wearing a Brussels jersey.

"The Foreign Office needs a complete and revolutionary shake-up for it must begin to reflect the stated desire of the British people to leave the EU."

Labour called for the Government to set out a clear timetable for the publication of its Brexit plans in the wake of the resignation.

The party's Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer said Sir Ivan's resignation was likely to be a "significant loss" for Britain and raised "a number of serious questions" about the Government's preparations for the talks, which Mrs May has said she will trigger under Article 50 of the EU treaties before the end of March.

He added: "I welcome the appointment of Sir Tim Barrow as the UK's new Permanent Representative to the EU. It is of course vital that there should be no vacuum in such an important role and that the new Permanent Representative should be someone with a strong and distinguished record of service as a diplomat.

"But a number of fundamental questions remain unanswered. In particular, Sir Ivan Rogers' confirmation that the Government lack a plan for Brexit and his statement that the UK does not have a proper and effective negotiating team in place."

Lord Kerslake, who was head of the civil service between 2012 and 2014, said Sir Ivan's departure "deprives the Government of a very experienced and capable European expert at a critical moment".

Read more: Irish negotiators forced to don blindfold as UK ambassador takes parting shot

"What is equally concerning though is the manner of his departure and what it tells us about the Government's state of readiness for what many see the biggest challenge this country has faced since the Second World War," he said in a letter to The Times.

While the civil service is skilled and committed to serving the Government it needs to be "clearly led, resourced properly to do the job and listened to even when its advice is not welcome," Lord Kerslake said.

Tom Fletcher, a former UK ambassador to Lebanon and former foreign policy adviser to three UK prime ministers, welcomed Sir Tim's appointment.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's the toughest negotiation in our life times and I think he is up to it.

"I have seen him in Brussels. He knows the corridors, he knows the characters.

"But actually more importantly I saw him in Moscow where he was incredibly resilient as ambassador there, dealing with (Vladimir) Putin in a very testing time in our relationship and Tim had a reputation of being bulletproof out there."

Meanwhile, Sir Robert Cooper, a former UK diplomat and European Commission official who knows Sir Tim, warned that the UK's team in Brussels currently lacks direction.

He said: "I think at the moment there is a policy vacuum. It's not surprising. This is a gigantic enterprise that's been taken on and needs a lot of thought.

"I think at the moment probably the atmosphere is difficult because people don't know where they are going.

"You need to have a sense of direction."

Leading Labour Remain campaigner Chuka Umunna said having the Brexit vote without an EU withdrawal strategy in place was "criminal".

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "Holding this referendum without any plan as to what you would do if we voted to leave was criminal, in my view.

"Well, I'm being rhetorical, it's clearly not illegal, but it was a silly thing to do, and now what have we got? We are flailing about, no direction, no-one knows what's happening."

Lord Livingston, a Tory former minister for trade and investment and former chief executive of BT, warned a new trade deal with the EU could take a long time to secure.

He said: "They do. First of all of course we have to actually sort out what's broadly going to be our relationship with the EU.

"Are we going to be in the single market? Probably not. Are we going to be in the customs union?

"Then you can turn your attention to other countries but the trade deal for instance with Canada still isn't fully implemented and that's about seven years on."

He added: "You can do quick trade deals, you can do good trade deals, you can do wide-ranging trade deals - you just can't do all three of them at the same time."

On the idea that the UK could leave the EU without a new trade deal in place, he told the BBC: "You can trade without one, you'll just do it better with one."

Meanwhile, Lord Marland, chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and a former trade envoy under David Cameron, expressed concerns about the Government's ability to conduct tough negotiations.

He said: "My fear is that Whitehall as a whole has really not got the skill set to deliver a really hard-nosed negotiation and I think we have really got to up skill in that area to do it."

Lord Marland also insisted that while trade deals are important, they are not "fundamental".

He added: "If you're too hard on negotiation you don't win. Any negotiation has got to have something that's in it for both parties."

Mats Persson, formerly David Cameron's special adviser for Europe, told the BBC he believed that, in hindsight, the former prime minister could have secured more in his negotiations with the EU prior to the Brexit referendum.

He said: "I think, played differently and perhaps over a longer period of time, we could have perhaps achieved some more reforms, yes."

Mr Persson rejected Lord Marland's suggestion that Whitehall lacked the skills to conduct tough negotiations.

He said: "I do think the UK has, and Whitehall has, the skill set to deliver this."

Press Association

Promoted Links

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Promoted Links

Also in Business