The British ambassador (Permanent Representative) to the EU institutions in Brussels, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned on the first working day of 2017.
Splashily. He sent a memo to all his large staff, knowing and presumably intending that it should be leaked. It’s quite a document.
It takes a great deal to push a senior British civil servant to quit like this and slam the door on his way out. Regardless of the merits of Brexit, negotiating it is a terrific high-profile professional challenge: a dream job â€“ if the brief makes any sense. It does not. Oh, his No. 2, Shan Morgan, left in November for the top civil service job in the devolved Welsh government.
Some bullet points.
We do not yet know what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UKâ€™s relationship with the EU after exit.â€
The British government still does not know what it is trying to achieve in the Brexit negotiations, though it has weirdly self-imposed a March deadline for triggering exit under Article 50.
Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission or in the Council. The government will only achieve the best for the country if it harnesses the best experience we have â€“ a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKRep â€“ and negotiates resolutely. Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished â€“ even where this is uncomfortable â€“ and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27.
London is in the grip of wishful thinking; pro-Leave ministers are refusing to face facts, and blaming the messenger.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities: increasing market access to other markets and consumer choice in our own, depends on the deals, multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral that we strike, and the terms that we agree.
A hard Brexit (without replacement market access deals in place) would be a shambles. My gloss: The fallback â€œWTO rules onlyâ€ may be tolerable for manufacturing, but not for the financial services on which London relies.
I shall advise my successor to continue to make these points.
God help him. He has been quickly named: Sir Tim Barrow, an FO mandarin and recent ambassador to Russia, so presumably tough as well as as slick as a penguin. But these problems can’t be fixed by tradecraft. Theresa May is heading for a trainwreck.
I fear this is the sort of year we are in for. At least in the USA, the incompetence of the Trump administration will offer partial protection from its malevolence. Just two examples picked from the turgid flow of events last week.
Trump went out of his way to insult Chuck Schumer, repeatedly calling him a â€œclownâ€ on Twitter. Progressive Democrats have been very nervous about Schumer as a successor to the steely Harry Reid: centrist, wheeler-dealer, friend of Wall Street and AIPAC, elected when the job was expected to be shepherding President Clinton’s agenda through Congress rather than fighting President Trump’s. Seduction into lesser-evil compromise might have worked. But Trump has left Schumer no choice but to fight, and he is shaping up. This jibe at McConnell is even better.
The other incident was Trump’s after-midnight tweetstorm immediately after Meryl Streep attacked him in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. It was a reprise on a smaller scale of his small-hours response to Alicia Machado.
The man is ridiculously easy to provoke, and the Democrats have a huge bench of uppity women celebrities who can be wheeled out to do just that at regular intervals. Does he win by distracting us all from his appalling agenda? With his base, perhaps. The Beltway chattering classes will be less impressed, and he loses any pretence at gravitas – it’s very dangerous to a politician to become a figure of fun. Still less those he needs to work with directly to get anything done. The Presidency will be a very taxing job, and you can only stay on top of it by shutting out distractions, and getting a full night’s sleep.