Murphy’s Year

The British ambassador to the EU resigns in disgust, and Trump goes off the rails too.

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 – 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 UK’s relationship with the EU after exit.”

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 – a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKRep – and negotiates resolutely. Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – 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 “WTO rules only” 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 “clown” 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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

12 thoughts on “Murphy’s Year”

  1. Given that Brussels has been bumbling along for years just trying to close a trade deal with Canada, I share your pessimism about the likelihood of a smooth Brexit being worked out in the next 24 months. There is however an excellent opportunity for a massive US-UK trade deal that would enrich both nations and as you note should cover services as well as products, to be worked out over the next two years and inked the day after Brexit.

    1. I interpret the data differently. The officials in Brussels knew what they were doing (says Sir Ivan) and still couldn't come up with a deal with unimportant Canada. The officials in Whitehall don't know anything about negotiating trade deals – no serving Whitehall official has done so, since the competence was surrendered to the EU in 1973. Their negotiating partners in Washington will be Trump's team of lunatics and conmen, closely supervised in this one instance by the Great Dealmaker himself. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

    2. Keith, I bow before your comedic prowess.

      ETA: Completely serious. I had to do two double-takes before I started laughing.

  2. I squandered a lot of my time in middle school reading science fiction when I should have been out getting to know girls. water over the dam, I know. And I read a lot of Robert Heinlein, one of whose writerly mechanisms was making up aphorisms for his characters to use. One of my faves was "When the people vote for the impossible, the disastrous possible happens instead". This has, actually, much broader applicability than just Brexit…

    1. Unlike Ayn Rand, Heinlein could actually write readable stories with interesting characters.

      1. Unlike Ayn Rand, Heinlein could actually write

        If Rand is the standard, then I suspect you and I could cobble together something better over a few beers.

      2. I suppose he *could*, in the sense that it did happen occasionally, but for the most part, his characters weren't all that interesting. In general, they were shallow ways for Heinlein to express his political views, and his antagonists were almost uniformly strawmen.

        1. When I was a child, I read, like, *all* his oeuvre. Right thru _Glory Road_. Recently I went back and tried to read it again. God, such shallow characters. And such a simplistic understanding of society, economics, law ….

          That happened when I read Pournelle, too.

          Such infantile writers.

          Which was a shame, b/c I'd really enjoyed them as a kid.

          1. And that hasn't even gotten us to his appalling use of rape (see Friday) and incest (see too many books to list).

        2. I wrote in haste about the characters. Maybe "just interesting enough to carry the story". Rand's are just wish fulfilment.

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