It never looks good for anyone involved when a senior civil servant’s critical resignation letter becomes public. When that man is the lead ambassador in the most toxic political negotiations in most of our life times, the reaction is bound to be polarized. Accusations and counter-accusations are currently flying around the newsrooms. Is this just sour grapes from an anti-Brexit civil servant with an axe to grind or do his views reflect genuine concern about the incoherence and naiveté of the British negotiating position?
There were two sections of the letter that caught my eye, as they reinforced existing concerns about the lack of knowledge and expertise about issues vital to the negotiating process in the British government. First there is a passage on the importance of the trade deals we make:
“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.”
This seems to imply that some senior government officials/ministers are seriously underestimating the complexity of negotiating trade deals. As my post from yesterday discussed (watch the video), trade deals are not just about agreeing to reduce taxes on imports and exports (not itself easy). They are about rules of origin, quotas, subsidies, investment protection, intellectual property, sanitary standards and much, much more. And our relationship with the EU dictates the terms of trade we can then negotiate with other countries. Minsters must start to understand this complexity if they are to have any hope of having a coherent and competent negotiating position.
Sir Ivan goes on to say that “serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall.” The worry is that very complex issues are being discussed by people without a full understanding of that complexity, and they are not listening to advice from outside. Whatever the motivations of the messenger, the message needs to be taken very seriously.