Even as Theresa May prepares to make a long-awaited speech on her Brexit strategy, the prime minister is facing fresh claims that her government is turning a deaf ear to news and advice on Brexit it does not want to hear.
Former civil servants expressed dismay at the resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s EU ambassador, on Tuesday, saying the UK was losing its best negotiators with the beginning of formal talks just weeks away.
Sir Simon Fraser, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office until 2015, said Sir Ivan’s departure would deprive the government of a negotiator with an vital insight on the thinking of Britain’s EU partners. He said: “It’s very important for this country to have that sort of knowledge and understanding to achieve its objectives.”
Sir Nicholas Macpherson, permanent secretary at the Treasury from 2008 to 2016, expressed the widespread fear in the civil service that Mrs May’s inner circle and Eurosceptic ministers are not prepared to listen to awkward advice on Brexit. The prime minister is expected to make a speech on her Brexit priorities in the coming days.
“I only hope Ivan’s departure is not about shooting the messenger and does not presage a Govean cull of the experts,” Lord Macpherson told the Financial Times, referring to Michael Gove’s comment that the country was tiring of experts.
In December Deloitte, the consultancy firm, agreed to suspend tendering for government business for six months after angering Mrs May when a leaked memo suggested that 30,000 civil servants would have to be hired to cope with Brexit.
Everyone knows that civil servants are being increasingly inhibited in offering objective opinion and advice to ministers
Eurosceptic Conservatives argue that Sir Ivan was a typically pessimistic Foreign Office diplomat in that he was unwilling to see the positive aspects to the UK’s departure from the EU. Mrs May’s allies dismiss claims the prime minister is not receptive to “difficult” news or advice on the subject.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP, said: “I think it is crucial that whoever represents us in Brussels is wholly committed to Brexit. Sadly, the impartiality of the civil service came into question during the referendum campaign, which made the position of the highly intelligent Sir Ivan difficult.”
But another well-connected Tory MP, who campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, said Sir Ivan was “very fed up” and that the government’s preparations for Brexit were “dysfunctional”.
“We’re weeks away from triggering our exit from the EU and our top EU diplomat has resigned in frustration,” the MP said, claiming that Mrs May and Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, had fallen out and that there was no plan.
Lord Macpherson said it “beggared belief” the government had dispensed with the services of “the three best EU-qualified negotiators” that the civil service possessed, ahead of the most crucial diplomatic talks for a generation.
He was referring to Sir Ivan, EU ambassador since 2013, Sir Jon Cunliffe, a former EU ambassador who is now deputy governor of the Bank of England, and Michael Ellam, the former Treasury EU specialist, now working for HSBC.
Peter Mandelson, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said of Sir Ivan’s resignation: “Everyone knows that civil servants are being increasingly inhibited in offering objective opinion and advice to ministers.”
Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister, said: “Ivan was always punctiliously objective and rigorous in all he did and all the advice he provided. If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal.”
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