The resignation of Britain’s ambassador to the European Union is seen on both sides of the ever-widening Channel as a sobering reminder that the country is heading for the hardest of Brexits.
Regardless of whether he was pushed or chose to jump, Sir Ivan Rogers was more than just the government’s representative in Brussels. He was also Britain’s best hope of a negotiated compromise with other member states over the terms of its departure.
For hardliners in Westminster, the resignation will be seen as a late Christmas present. The Tory right has long accused Rogers of offering “little but doom and gloom” by focusing on the gulf between what they believe could be achieved through determined British bargaining and what the other 27 governments want.
Rogers, a former private secretary to the Tory Europhile Kenneth Clarke, was accused of letting down David Cameron by not pushing harder for EU concessions during the run-up to the referendum. A new book on the period claims Rogers threatened to resign several times during the painful process.
Revelations that our man in Brussels had recently warned that exit negotiations could drag on for a decade may have proved to be the final straw – both for exasperated ministers and beleaguered civil servants who saw little upside in being proved right.
But just because Eurosceptics do not regard his departure as a surprise does not mean it should be regarded as without consequence. The news is being met with consternation by many experts on European affairs who see it as a sign that Britain is no longer interested in hearing bad news, regardless of consequences.
“Hardline Eurosceptics criticised him for advising Cameron on the limits of what he could ask for in his renegotiation, but he told the truth – that the 27 were not prepared to give more than they offered,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.
“Those who tell the truth are not always popular and thus Ivan became unpopular with large parts of the Tory party. One may question whether he would have resigned if he had not felt that he lost the confidence of No 10.”
The pro-EU policy establishment is easily dismissed by Brexiters as another group of experts who are incapable of imagining the benefits of independence. Yet Rogers was regarded in Brussels as among one of the more Eurosceptic British occupants of the post in recent decades. A more confident British negotiating team should in theory have been happy to have an expert in its ranks who was capable of seeing where the room for manoeuvre lay.
“No other official or adviser or minister near the top of the British government came near to matching Ivan’s expertise on the EU,” said Grant. “He was one of the few people at the top of the British government who understood how the EU worked and what other EU leaders thought and felt. [Theresa] May and her ministers will sorely miss his expertise.”
The former EU commissioner Peter Mandelson said: “In terms of knowledge and experience of the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers is second to none in Whitehall. His resignation is a serious loss for us in Brussels.
“Our negotiation as a whole will go nowhere if ministers are going to delude themselves about the immense difficulty and challenges Britain faces in implementing the referendum decision.”
It looks as if Rogers was hounded from office not for the crime of disloyalty but because he was too negative – not capable of seeing the opportunities that May claims are around the corner.
Signs continue to abound that British Eurosceptics still inhabit an entirely different planet, let alone continent, from everyone else in 2017.
Earlier on Tuesday, Michael Gove’s thinktank Change Britain claimed that far from destroying trade, leaving the EU customs union would create 400,000 jobs by allowing hitherto unrecognised opportunities in the rest of the world – a claim dismissed as “fantasy figures” by the rival group Open Britain.
In this context, Rogers represented a dangerous tendency to try to bridge the divide. For politicians on either side, it will now be that little bit easier to shout past each other rather than seek common ground.
Grant concluded: “Britain’s partners will take this as a sign that May’s government is heading for a hard Brexit which puts sovereignty ahead of economic integration with the EU.”
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