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Ivan Rogers was fearless in telling Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron how he saw things. Our ambassador to the EU didn’t sugar the pill when he had uncomfortable messages to deliver about what could and couldn’t be achieved in negotiations with our European partners.

If the prime minister replaces Rogers – who has just resigned – with a yes-person, the risk of a messed-up Brexit will rise. The government’s tendency to live in denial about the strength of its negotiating hand will be increased and the chance of making serious errors in the coming talks will go up.

It is still unclear why Rogers quit. The FT says his letter informing staff about his departure gave no reason. One Brussels source told InFacts that he was “tired of having sensible, professional advice ignored or distorted and politicised”, so he decided it was time for someone new to tackle the Brexit negotiations.

What is clear is that Rogers was an experienced diplomat with a great network of contacts across the EU. There’s nobody else in the civil service with anything like his expertise – with the possible exception of Tom Scholar, head of the Treasury. It will be next to impossible to find somebody with the same ability to understand the lay of the land in the EU and figure out which moves in the multi-dimensional game of chess are likely to strengthen our position and which will lead to us being check-mated.

But an even bigger danger is that May will now succumb to pressure from the hard Brexiters to appoint somebody who will tell her what they want to hear. One of Rogers’ greatest virtues was his gutsiness in delivering unvarnished messages.

A campaign to push May to appoint a true believer in Brexit to replace Rogers has already started. The Mail Online’s headline reads: ‘Now let’s appoint an EU ambassador who believes in Brexit!’ Britain’s ‘pessimistic’ man in Brussels QUITS after facing major backlash over his ‘gloomy’ warnings about EU divorce.

Even if the prime minister doesn’t appoint a hard Brexiter to the role, it would be surprising if the new ambassador has the courage to be objective in his or her advice. He or she will have seen how Rogers was lambasted in the pro-Brexit media after it emerged last month that he had warned it could take a decade to cut a new trade deal with the EU. Taking on the job will be a poisoned chalice.

The safe option for the new envoy will be to pretend that the Brexit process will be easy, that it will be possible to have our cake and eat it, and so forth. The risk of May then misreading the situation, demanding the impossible and provoking an almighty bust-up with our European partners will then rise.

Not a good way to start the year.

A sentence in the third paragraph giving one source’s explanation for Rogers’ resignation was added shortly after publication.

by Hugo Dixon | 03.01.2017


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