Sir Ivan Rogers: Outgoing EU ambassador urges officials to "speak truth to power" amid Brexit row

Outgoing permanent representative to the European Union uses resignation letter to tell officials not to shy away from delivering "uncomfortable" truths in the months ahead

Sir Ivan Rogers (right) told staff that ministers would need the "detailed, unvarnished" truth on the views of EU member states to make Brexit work. Image: PA

By Matt Foster

04 Jan 2017

The UK's outgoing ambassador to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, has urged civil servants to "continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking", as a political row erupted over his early resignation.

Rogers, a Whitehall veteran who has served as the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union since 2013, told colleagues on Tuesday that he was leaving post ahead of his planned departure date in October, saying it would make "no sense" for his role to change hands once formal talks on Britain's exit from the EU had begun.

But he also called on officials to be unafraid when delivering "uncomfortable" truths to ministers in the "difficult moments" ahead.

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In his resignation message to colleagues at UKREP, Sir Ivan said officials still did not know  "what the government will set as negotiating objectives for the UK's relationship with the EU after exit", and said Brexit negotiations would require the "negotiating experience and savvy" of staff in the UK's Representation to the EU (UKREP).

"Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the [European] Commission or in the Council," he warned.

"The government will only achieve the best for the country if it harnesses the best experience we have – a large proportion of which is concentrated in UKREP – and negotiates resolutely.

"Senior ministers, who will decide on our positions, issue by issue, also need from you detailed, unvarnished – even where this is uncomfortable – and nuanced understanding of the views, interests and incentives of the other 27 [member states]."

"I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them" – Sir Ivan Rogers

Rogers' resignation comes after he reportedly warned ministers that fellow EU member states believed a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK could take up to a decade to finalise, and could be rejected by individual European parliaments.

Meanwhile, The Times – citing a friend of the outgoing ambassador – on Wednesday said Rogers had become increasingly frustrated with the “control-freak Home Office approach” taken by some staff in Downing Street in recent months.

Rogers' parting message, in which he praises UKREP as an "amazingly fun and stimulating place to work" reiterates the values of public service, and urges staff not to lose sight of the need for officials to present ministers with difficult truths.

"I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power," Rogers wrote.

He added: "I hope that you will support each other in those difficult moments where you have to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.

"I hope that you will continue to be interested in the views of others, even where you disagree with them, and in understanding why others act and think in the way that they do.

"I hope that you will always provide the best advice and counsel you can to the politicians that our people have elected, and be proud of the essential role we play in the service of a great democracy."

"Called a spade a spade"

News of Rogers departure was quickly welcomed by prominent Brexit campaigners, with Nigel Farage (left), the former UK Independence Party leader,  calling for a "complete clear out" of the Foreign Office and the appointment of a "firm Brexiteer" as the new ambassador.

"I think it would be appropriate if a lot more people in that position, British ambassadors, left," he told the Press Association. "The world has changed.”

Arron Banks, the millionaire financier who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign group and serves as its chairman, said Rogers was "far too much of a pessimist" and "yet another of the establishment's pro-EU old guard".

"It’s time now for someone who is optimistic about the future that lies ahead for Brexit Britain," he added.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former work and pensions secretary and a long-standing Tory eurosceptic, meanwhile said Rogers had clearly become "frustrated" in post but called for the civil service to "accept" the result of the referendum.

"The cabinet secretary said the job of the civil service now is to deliver on the vote of the people – and he was right on that," Duncan Smith told the Today programme.

“There’s a problem here for the civil service. They have never faced a challenge like this before. They are having to tear up the rulebook. They have to accept and understand that we are leaving.

“The government knows where it’s going — it just needs civil servants who will help implement it.”

But Sir Simon Fraser (left), the former top official at the Foreign Office, said Roger had simply "called a spade a spade" in his advice to ministers.

"He is a highly intelligent, knowledgeable and experienced official and one of the greatest experts – if I can use the expert word – that we have on European matters in the British civil service," Fraser told the Today programme.

Former Treasury permanent secretary Sir Nicholas Macpherson meanwhile reacted to the departure by hitting out at what he called the government's "wilful and total destruction of EU expertise". 

Posting on Twitter, Macpherson, who served as Treasury perm sec for more than a decade, said that other senior figures including his successor Tom Scholar, Bank of England deputy government Sir Jon Cunliffe, and former Treasury EU specialist Michael Ellam had been left "out of [the] loop" on Brexit.

Former chancellor George Osborne praised Rogers as "a perceptive, pragmatic and patriotic public servant" while Nick Clegg, who worked alongside the ambassador during his own stint in Brussels, defended the role of officials in speaking truth to power.

“If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal," the former deputy prime minister said.

“The government needs all the help it can get from good civil servants to deliver a workable Brexit.”

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