Long-serving business department chief Martin Donnelly to move to international trade – as Alex Chisholm takes over at BEIS

Martin Donnelly (pictured) will lead the new Department for International Trade for a transitional period, while former DECC perm sec Alex Chisholm takes on the expanded business department

By Matt Foster

05 Sep 2016

Sir Martin Donnelly is to lead the new Department for International Trade (DIT) as it finds its feet, it has been announced, with Alex Chisholm, the former DECC chief, taking over as permanent secretary at the beefed-up Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 

Donnelly and Chisholm – whose energy department was folded into Donnelly's business department as part of Theresa May's big reorganisation of Whitehall – have been running BEIS as joint permanent secretaries since the merger was announced. 

On top of the BEIS job, Donnelly has also been serving as acting perm sec at the newly-created trade department.

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But in a statement issued on Monday, the government said that Donnelly was stepping down from his long-held BEIS role to "help set up" DIT "over the coming months".

And the statement confirmed that an open competition would shortly be announced "to recruit a long-term permanent secretary for the Department for International Trade", meaning Donnelly's leadership of DIT will be a transitional rather than permanent arrangement.

​Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said he was "delighted with the way in which the former BIS and DECC departments are already coming together to create a new power-house department". 

He added: "Alex’s background in leading large organisations will be vital in continuing this process of bringing together the two sides of BEIS. 

"And having an experienced permanent secretary like Martin is invaluable to help set up the Department for International Trade as it grows." 

Donnelly has led the business department since 2010, and his new focus will be on helping to lay the groundwork at the ministry tasked with crafting a new trade policy for Britain in the run-up to the country's departure from the European Union.

Prime minister Theresa May said over the weekend that she wanted a post-Brexit Britain to be a "global leader" in free trade, while Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said his country was already looking at securing a “very strong, very open”deal with the UK in the wake of Brexit.

However, the scale of the challenge facing DIT was laid bare when US president Barack Obama said his country would not prioritise the UK in its international trade arrangements, instead focusing on concluding existing talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the European Union.

Donnelly's department also faces the urgent task of recruiting a team of trade negotiators to carry out talks that Britain has not had to conduct on its own since it joined the European Union. 

The DIT's transitional perm sec himself brings substantial EU experience to the role, having served in the cabinet of Leon Brittan when the Tory heavyweight was European Commissioner in the early 90s. 

Donnelly has also held senior Foreign Office roles, including a brief stint as the FCO's acting perm sec in 2010, and he was deputy head of the Cabinet Office's powerful European Secretariat between 1998 and 2003. 

He has also experience life on the other side of the English channel, having been seconded into the French Finance Ministry in the mid-90s.

Meanwhile, Chisholm (pictured) – who became DECC perm sec just weeks before the department was scrapped – will take the reins at a much-expanded business department, which has been tasked with forming a new industrial strategy for the UK and joining the dots on energy and business policy. 

Chisholm was drafted into DECC from the UK's competition watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) earlier this year, having served as the organisation's chief executive for two years. 

On Chisholm's watch, the CMA published a heavy-hitting report into Britain's energy market, warning of a lack of competition in the sector and urging a "reset" in the relationship between DECC, energy regulator Ofgem and major suppliers. 

Commenting on the leadership shake-up, Donnelly said he had been "extremely privileged to work with a team of civil servants at BEIS, and across Whitehall, who are inspiring in their professionalism and dedication to public service". And he said he was "looking forward to the challenge" of helping to establish the DIT "as an effective outward looking organisation, delivering the government’s international trade and investment agenda". 

Chisholm meanwhile said he was "delighted" with the move and looking forward to working with "the ministerial team and departmental colleagues to establish the new department and deliver on the promise of a new industrial strategy". ​

Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer gave the first formal confirmation on Monday that the civil service's HR chief, Rupert McNeil, has been holding talks with all departmental perm secs and heads of function to scope out the skills and resources required for the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

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