Yesterday’s sudden ‘resignation’ of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the European Union, is a significant landmark on Britain’s winding road out of the EU. This is not good news for Theresa May’s government.
The announcement has been dressed up by a perturbed 10 Downing Street as a sensible ‘early retirement’ – Rogers was due to retire towards the end of 2017. In reality this is a resignation forced upon an honourable man by the Brexiteers, who have captured the prime minister. The role in this affair of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, will bear some investigation.
The essence is almost embarrassingly simple: Rogers appears to have been forced out because, like the good civil servant he is, he has been ‘telling truth to power’.
It has been a hellish job these last 12 months. For a start Rogers had the unpleasant task of warning the previous government of David Cameron that, while desperately wanting the UK to remain within the EU, the other 27 members were not going to ‘roll over’ and make life easy in the event of an insane vote to leave.
On top of this, Rogers played a valuable but thankless role as a public servant who not only had to report back from Brussels to London, but also had to read the way things were going in the UK. He was one of the few senior advisers to Cameron who were suspicious of the messages coming from the opinion polls and bookmakers.
As a horse-racing enthusiast with an interest in betting trends, I must point out that the message from the bookmakers was not quite what most people thought. Despite the fact that Remain was an odds-on chance – that is, hot favourite to win – that reflected the huge amounts of money being placed on Remain earlier in the year, when no one, not even most Brexiteers, took the prospect of a Leave outcome seriously. In the closing weeks of the campaign, nearly three quarters of the bets were going on Leave, a development which I suspect Rogers had noted.
Rogers’ warnings turned out to be well substantiated. The other 27 EU members are not ‘rolling over’. They are playing hardball. The crux of the matter, and the main reason behind Rogers’ seemingly forced resignation, is that the difficulties of negotiating any meaningful alternative to membership of the EU are becoming more apparent by the week.
The final straw seems to have been a leak to the BBC before Christmas that Rogers was advising the inexperienced team at the helm of the British government that renegotiating our trading arrangements if Brexit goes ahead is likely to take up to 10 years, and in any case to be to the UK’s disadvantage compared with current arrangements. Readers should not forget that the referendum was ‘advisory’ rather than binding, that much of the Brexit campaign was seen as being based on distortion, defamation or outright lies, and that only 28% of the UK population voted for Leave.
Rogers warned that holding a referendum was risky in the first place, that it might well result in Brexit, and that the result would be an unholy mess. Although the full circumstances are not yet clear, I believe the uncomfortable truth is this: Rogers has in effect been sacked for being right.
William Keegan is Senior Economics Commentator for The Observer.