Richard North, 05/01/2017  
 


Watching it develop through yesterday, it is quite remarkable to see how the Ivan Rogers row intensified right up to the BBC main evening news which led with the text of his post-resignation letter to his former colleagues.

Now that Sir Tim Barrow has been appointed as his replacement. Interestingly, not one of the pundits that I read had shortlisted him. Nevertheless, there is closure - of a sort. But there is also a sense that the lid has been lifted off a giant can of worms, giving this controversy a way to go yet.

Barrow himself was a foreign and security policy specialist during his stint in Brussels and is said to be a "brilliant" diplomat on Russia relations. But, says Bruno Waterfield, he is not focused and never has been on the UK's EU policy.

He is described variously as "totally FCO" and as a "classic civil servant", with a colleague suggesting that he might have a "bit of an issue" with speaking truth to power. And although he's considered to be very ambitious, he's not obviously eurosceptic.

Colleagues (at least, those prepared to give anonymous briefings to the press) do not recall him every having said anything eurosceptic. Says one: "I've never heard him say anything eurosceptic. He's not the most outspoken or controversial of people. He will do what he's told".

We have lost a specialist and gained a "yes" man whose calibre has yet to be tested in the crucible of mainstream Brussels diplomacy. The zombie tendency has hardly gained anything, having been landed with a thoroughly establishment figure.

Meanwhile, more is emerging about the Rogers resignation, as The Times marks down the second week of December during the European Council as the turning point in relations between Rogers and Downing Street.

Up until then, Britain's most senior Brussels hand had been telling friends that he had a strong relationship with Theresa May. Although he disliked the Home Office "control freakery", he and Mrs May were well known to one another.

Following the referendum, when Mrs May became Prime Minister, Rogers apparently expected to be dumped, but he got no signs that he should leave. Not until October was there any sign of trouble, after a misunderstanding over of Sir Ivan's press briefings, which incurred the displeasure of No 10.

By December things had worsened. Sir Ivan had been banned from talking to the media about Brexit and then the BBC reported on the morning of the European Council that he had suggested it would take ten years to finalise Brexit. A coalition of prominent Eurosceptics and media outlets rounded on the envoy for his "pessimism".

According to The Times, Sir Ivan continues to insist that the story, drawn from a memorandum he wrote in October, was unfair. He maintains that he was echoing European officials and offering private advice that a full and final free-trade agreement would not come into force until the mid-2020s.

But No 10's failure to offer him sufficient backing after the leak left him surprised and dismayed. Mrs May's chief lieutenants, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, were blamed for hanging him out to dry, with all the consequences for his authority across Europe and in Whitehall that would bring.

"No 10 might be furious that he is going but they created this resignation. They briefed against him, someone leaked the memo [about Brexit taking ten years], and they tried to pin the so-called failed negotiation [under Mr Cameron] on Tom Scholar [Mr Cameron's adviser on the European Union] and Ivan Rogers", according to one former colleague in Brussels.

"If you are the British ambassador, your job is to say the truth back home and to put the best possible case in Brussels. When you do not have the support of your prime minister you cannot do the job".

Sir Ivan had already begun discussions with London about his future. Technically, his four-year term was due to expire in October this year, but few believed that he would leave, given the scale of the task ahead for Britain.

In light of his December experience, however, he started to question whether No 10 was serious about allowing him to continue or whether a more elaborate game was being played.

Tensions were also increasingly evident with the new Department for Exiting the European Union, headed by David Davis. "They occupied the same turf so the clash was institutional as well as personal", a source said.

However, The Times tells us, when he returned to London on 22 December, Sir Ivan left few clues that he might suddenly quit, although signs of frustration were palpable. "He made clear he would walk if decision-making was delayed or he was being completely ignored", a confidant said. He emailed his resignation from his holiday in Dorset. No 10 did not know in advance.

And that is the "take", so far – from The Times. We see painted a picture of a man who really had nothing to lose – he can walk into any number of highly-paid directorships at the drop of a hat – who decided there were better things to do in life than put up with the sort of crap he was having to deal with.

Not content with that, the media are trying to broaden out the issue, with the Independent, via Sir Nicholas Macpherson, suggesting that the shock departure of Sir Ivan "may be the start of a Michael Gove-style 'cull of the experts'" - a shift to a "post-truth" approach, where well-informed experts challenging populist opinion are no longer welcome.

In a not-dissimilar vein, the Guardian complains, in respect of civil servants and Brexit, that experts are going unheeded when needed most.

The paper rehearses the idea that UK civil servants are career officials rather than political appointees, and argues that the resignation of Sir Ivan has reopened debates dating back centuries over whether such an independent structure is fit for purpose in today's highly politicised Whitehall environment.

Here, there is certainly an issue, where the zombie tendency have been applauding the resignation of Sir Ivan and calling for his replacement of a pro-Brexit permanent representative – in other words, a political appointment.

As Walpole once said though: "They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands". Challenging the principle of an independent civil service and pursuing the path of political appointments may deliver outcomes that no-one wants to see.

To that extent, this resignation is sorting the men from the boys – those who are concerned to see, as was Rogers, a managed and orderly departure from the EU, and the shallow creatures who would seek their own gratification despite the long-term consequences.

Perhaps, though, this whole affair is being overblown – not the first time something has. A forthright civil servant has put two fingers up to the system, which has absorbed the shock and, within hours, appointed a replacement.

This tells us little more about Mrs May's plans, although it certainly adds to the uncertainty about them. But, from the very first, Mrs May made it clear that she was going to be in charge of the negotiations. And to that extent, nothing much has changed. Whatever goes on inside Whitehall, outside, mushroom management prevails.






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