David Cameron, and Britain’s ambassador to the European Union, Ivan Rogers. THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images
The UK’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, has resigned, the Financial Times reports. He had been expected to be one of the pivotal figures in the looming Brexit negotiations and is highly respected in Brussels. A career civil servant, he had worked for Ken Clarke in the Major years and then for the equally Europhile Tony Blair.
His departure will no doubt be interpreted in some quarters (Nick Clegg is already weeping and wailing) as a disaster when it is anything but. It is good news that he has resigned, because it will allow Theresa May – with the advice of David Davis at the Department for Exiting the EU – to appoint someone to the post a little less in tune with the faction convinced that Brexit is automatically the end of the world. It is a resignation that had also become inevitable the closer the UK gets to triggering Article 50 by the end of March.
Rogers is by all sensible accounts a skilled and dedicated public servant. So surely he can see that the assumption he embodies – EU the natural order, Britain at the heart of it, winning the argument in Europe – is a dead orthodoxy and fresh thinking and renewed vigour will be required for the negotiations and beyond? His resignation suggests that is the case, but we’ll see soon enough to what extent he was pushed.
I do not mean for a second officials should be required to be starry-eyed about Brexit, but it is natural that the politicians seek the company of officials who start from the premise that all might not be lost. Think of it in combat terms, with generals and politicians. Imagine you are in a tight spot in a war. The position is perilous, the nation is at stake, the challenges are numerous. What use is a general who says it is probably unwinnable or victory will come at such high cost that we are doomed anyway? Not much. On that basis, wanting a fresh approach and a bit of dynamism and realistic optimism, Churchill chose Alanbrooke, because he was a practical soldier determined to find a way where others could not.
Unfairly or not, Sir Ivan’s warning in the summer (leaked months later) that Brexit in its entirety (the trade deal following initial departure) would probably take ten years went down badly with the politicians who will steer the talks. Ten years to work out how to sensibly sell each other cars and wine? What a litany of doom and despair. That’s four years longer than the duration of the entire Second World War, merely to get the UK fully out of one not particularly successful treaty organisation that cannot control its borders and has inflicted a demented economic experiment on its southern states. Of course the process will be tricky at times. But Britain is leaving the EU, not trying to establish a settlement on Mars.
There’s more. The reason a key role for Sir Ivan was a non-starter in the Brexit talks to come is that he was one of the central figures involved in David Cameron’s appalling renegotiation with the EU, which was a dismal failure.
Indeed, on re-reading Tim Shipman’s magnificent account of Brexit (All Out War, of which more in another piece later) Sir Ivan emerges as one of the unwitting heroes of the whole business, if you voted to Leave. Brexiteers should give thanks for his efforts, because he and like-minded souls – unintentionally – made Brexit more likely by being far too cautious during Cameron’s renegotiation.
Perhaps those officials assumed Remain would always win the referendum no matter what the shape of the deal, or perhaps they were so conditioned by EU membership to think of everything from a UK in the EU perspective, but whatever the explanation, officialdom played a major role in dooming the talks. A decent deal – with migration control – could have seen off Leave, but it was never even attempted.
Time and again in Shipman’s account, Sir Ivan and the Brits in Brussels (and in their London outposts in Whitehall) said that this or that could not be done (or even mentioned, or requested) because the Germans or the Commission or someone else would not stand for it. Bit by bit, Cameron’s potential demands were whittled down. By the time one gets to the chapter in All Out War in which Cameron is in the final talks any reader with a sense of human decency surely feels sorry for him. Cameron had a decent faith in the civil service and diplomatic machinery, and it brought him to that point of humiliation, contemplating a pea-shooter of a deal when he needed heavy artillery. He should have walked away then and said he would come back six months later with a take it or leave it offer including migration control.
Ultimately, the blame for the failure of EU reform lies well before that point, with the Cameroon operation, and William Hague at the Foreign Office from 2010, who bizarrely opted not to have his own reform agenda. Led by Cameron they could together have tried to imagine and sponsor an alternative, and made the case on the continent – a continent in tumult – for six years. If they had advocated a proper two-speed Europe and then against the backdrop of the migration, terrorism and eurozone crises offered increased security cooperation in return for something akin to associate membership, then it might – might – have produced a different outcome in the pre-referendum renegotiation. If not, at least the UK would have tried properly.
What was patched together instead was a hopeless deal representing the logical endpoint of a failed Whitehall view of the EU, agreed to by politicians who bought into the orthodoxy too easily and even by those more sceptical mandarins and some Remain politicians who didn’t like the EU but could not imagine another way. It is a worldview that feels like a faded relic now. All in pieces, dashed on the rocks, gone.