Britain’s Ambassador to the EU quit abruptly and acrimoniously this week. Open Europe reports:
Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK ambassador to the EU, [on Jan. 3] unexpectedly resigned. In his resignation email Rogers said, “We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK’s relationship with the EU after exit…Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council.” He urged his staff to “continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking.” A UK government spokesman said, “Sir Ivan has taken this decision now to enable a successor to be appointed before the UK invokes Article 50 by the end of March.”
Open Europe’s Senior Policy Analyst Vincenzo Scarpetta argues in an article for the CapX website, “The timing of the decision is far from ideal. If the Government sticks to its original timeline for invoking Article 50, the Brexit talks will kick off at some point in the spring – once the other 27 EU member states agree on their own negotiating guidelines. This leaves limited time for finding a replacement and for the handover…Nonetheless, we also need to put things into context…The reality is that Sir Ivan was never going to be the UK’s lead negotiator in the Brexit talks. This role will be reserved for the so-called ‘sherpas’ of heads of state and government.” He concludes, “While Sir Ivan’s experience and knowledge would certainly have come in handy over the next few months, we should not exaggerate the possible consequences of his resignation for the Government’s negotiating strategy – let alone for the UK’s chances of securing a good deal.”
The narrow and bitterly divisive vote for Brexit has proved to be a running sore in British politics. In its immediate aftermath, David Cameron resigned. His successor, Theresa May, has undoubtedly proven shrewd and politically skilled, but had no grand vision of what a post-European Britain would look like. Meanwhile, the British establishment as a whole has thoroughly failed to pull itself together since the vote.
Fans of British humor or British politics among our readers are probably familiar with the classic TV series Yes, Minister (later Yes, Prime Minister). The running gag was that the cynical old civil servant (Sir Humphrey Appleby) would try to manipulate his ambitious and naive politically superior (Jim Hacker, Minister of the “Department of Administrative Affairs”), who in turn twisted and turned to defend his interests and vague, idealistic dreams. At the end of the day, Sir Humphrey would tell Hacker the facts of life, and Hacker would tell Humphrey the political realities dictated by his constituents, and somehow they muddled through. Labeled a satire, it’s a better depiction of government than many satires. Incidentally, a great example of this came in an episode about the European Union:
Leading up to, and to some extent precipitating, the Brexit vote, this famous British diplomatic guile failed; afterward, the compact between the Sir Humphreys and the Jim Hackers has totally fallen apart. The political class has failed to articulate their aims and expectations; the mandarin class, who overwhelmingly opposed the vote to leave, have made it clear that as far as they’re concerned, their masters have made this bed and they can bloody well lie in it.
Handwringing about the treason of the clerks from Brexiteers and the government fails to conceal total, catastrophic lack of planning for such a momentous decision beforehand and the failure to develop a strategy since. Meanwhile, while we cannot know the exact exact details of what led to Sir Ivan’s firing, there’s been enough evidence to say the Whitehall bureaucrats have been sulking by their ships because they disagree with a command decision, rather than giving their all to deal with a crisis that will affect the entire country.
The Brexit negotiations aren’t looking like the brilliant diplomacy that let the Protestant William III conclude an alliance with the Pope against the Catholic French. So far, they look more like the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Update: This post has been edited to clarify Sir Ivan’s position in the first line.