Britain’s ambassador to the EU has unexpectedly and abruptly resigned, just a few months before the UK is expected to start formal Brexit negotiations in which he would have played a crucial role.
Sir Ivan Rogers told staff on Tuesday that he would be stepping down from his post early, leaving officials in shock at the loss of one of Britain’s most experienced EU negotiators.
He did not explain the reasons for the move, according to people who have seen his note to diplomatic staff. Sir Ivan played down the importance of the decision, saying he was leaving a few months earlier than his original departure date of November.
Since his appointment in late 2013, Sir Ivan has been one of the leading advisers in former prime minister David Cameron’s pre-referendum renegotiation of EU membership terms and in his successor Theresa May’s preparations for Brexit.
While he had a longstanding relationship with Mrs May and was consulted by her on Brexit strategy, Sir Ivan’s relations with some of the prime minister’s team began to deteriorate in recent months.
This culminated in December with a leak to the BBC of Sir Ivan’s advice to the prime minister suggesting it could take until the early mid-2020s for the EU to agree and ratify a comprehensive trade deal with Britain.
Although the advice was months old and reflected Sir Ivan’s conversations with senior EU officials, the leak prompted a series of negative articles in pro-Brexit newspapers. The Daily Mail reported that “knives were out” for Britain’s ambassador to the EU because of his “gloomy pessimism”.
Following the news of his departure Rupert Harrison, a former Treasury adviser now at BlackRock, said: “Ivan was always worrier-in-chief so [I] can see why he may not have fitted in with the new optimism, but this still seems unfortunate . . .”.
Sir Ivan is a Whitehall veteran who started his career at the Treasury. He served as private secretary to both Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, and Tony Blair during his time as prime minister. He left the civil service in 2006 for a four-year spell to work for Citigroup.
His Brussels experience began as chief of staff to Lord Brittan, the former EU commissioner who was overseeing the bloc’s trade policy through the late 1990s. Sir Ivan was highly regarded by other EU ambassadors in Brussels, who expected to him remain in place for formal Brexit negotiations.
Known in Downing Street for his unvarnished advice and ability to spot looming bear traps in Brussels, the loss of Sir Ivan will be seen as a blow to the Treasury and other parts of the UK government seeking a more orderly and gradual transition out of the EU.
Since Mrs May’s appointment as prime minister, Sir Ivan has played down the prospects of a “soft Brexit” in private conversations with other officials and EU ambassadors.
He has long seen the most likely scenario as Britain leaving the EU single market and customs union, and the biggest question being whether this would be achieved through an orderly and managed transition, or via a sharp exit with no withdrawal agreement with the EU.
Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform said in a tweet on Tuesday: “Ivan Rogers’ resignation makes a good deal on Brexit less likely. One of the very few people at top of Brit government who understands [the] EU.”
Sir Ivan could not be contacted for comment. His formal exit date has not yet been set.
Sample the FT’s top stories for a week
You select the topic, we deliver the news.