The Brexit-geared departmental restructured heralded by Theresa May’s first key cabinet appointments underscores the “massive task” facing Whitehall, former Foreign & Commonwealth Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser has said.
Sir Simon, who stepped down from his role last year, insisted that the installation of David Davis as secretary of state for exiting the European Union, and Liam Fox as secretary of state for international trade, did not sideline the remit of new foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
His words came just hours after MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) warned May that creating a new department to deliver Brexit risked creating “rival power structures”.
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Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Sir Simon said it was clear that Davis would lead on Brexit negotiations and that it was his understanding that a new department would be created into which civil servants and diplomats would be moved.
“What you’re seeing is Whitehall being organised by the prime minister quite rightly to tackle as effectively as possible the massive task that lies ahead, which is negotiating our departure from the European Union,“ he said.
“That’s going to be a job that involves the whole of Whitehall, but the Foreign Office is going to be absolutely at the heart of it because the Foreign Office is the department that has the most experience and knowledge of Europe, both in London and through our embassies around the world.”
Sir Simon said he assumed new accommodation for the Brexit department was being sought around Whitehall and that knowing what the government’s new operational structure was would allow civil servants to “get on with getting the ducks in a row” for the Brexit negotiations.
“One thing that is important is that we don‘t loose too much energy and time in organising the furniture and finding the accommodation,” he said.
“We‘ve got now to move ahead with establishing our negotiating position and think about how we‘re going to conduct this really major challenge in negotiating with Europe and engaging with the rest of the world.
“Not all of the work across Brexit is going to be done simply by people in that department. They will be reaching out to and co-ordinating expert teams in all the departments across Whitehall.”
Asked about Boris Johnson’s suitability for the role of foreign secretary in the light of disparaging comments made about US President Barack Obama and succession hopeful Hillary Clinton, Sir Simon predicted the former mayor of London would turn over a new leaf in cabinet.
“As they say in financial services, past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future performance,” he said.
“It’s a job in which you command attention, you don’t need to seek attention, and he will be surrounded by highly professional people who will advise him, and I think he will address it in a professional way.”
While May’s proposals for a Brexit department are at odds with PACAC’s preference for the existing Brexit unit to remain within the Cabinet Office, the creation of a department for international trade reflects a call for by PACAC chair Bernard Jenkin in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum.
Jenkin told CSW that that leaving the European Union would require the creation of a new trade directorate as part of an expanded Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
“The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ought to be called the Department for Trade and Industry – trade being the operative word,” he said. “And it should reacquire those skills and build up a department that is capable of doing those things. “There will need to be a new directorate – a trade directorate, [with a director] one rung below permanent secretary.”