Britain’s foreign office under Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is failing to exert the authority one might expect from an important ministry in one of the world’s leading industrialised nations. In the struggle to gain adherence to the UK line over leaving the European Union, British diplomacy has not won over a single member state from the other 27 countries to back Britain’s position against that adopted by Brussels.
As the Brexit negotiations intensify, one issue is clear. The reorganisation of government departments to deal with the UK’s EU withdrawal, implemented by Theresa May 15 months ago when she became prime minister, is not working well. One way out of the impasse would be to merge the UK departments for exiting the EU, international trade and the foreign office into one single superministry for foreign affairs, global trade and exiting Europe.
May could put in charge as joint secretaries of state the three present incumbents – Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox , the ‘three musketeers’ of Brexit. Or she could appoint just one of them as ‘primus inter pares’. (I would not choose Johnson.) Either way, the trio can form a partnership and show the prime minister, the Conservative party and the nation that they can make a success of Brexit as the hours tick by to a final decision.
Such a solution would avoid May having to sack anyone. She would save a significant amount of taxpayers’ money. And the Brexit troika would have their chance to make their dream come true.
In the EU negotiations, the UK is battling against the odds. David Davis has lost (back to the Cabinet office) Olly Robbins, his top Brexit official – one of the rare Whitehall warriors who knew how Europe worked. Opposite Davis in Brussels sits Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, twice a commissioner. He has also held the key French ministerial portfolios of foreign affairs and agriculture.
Barnier has found time to learn passable English. After holding junior jobs under John Major in the 1990s, Davis spent two decades on the back benches. Unfortunately, his European obsessions never extended to learning one of its languages.
The UK needs to significantly increase its exporting prowess . It is unclear how leaving the EU will help. Britain lies 15th in the EU league table of exporters per capita. Germany exports five times as much to China as Britain does. The idea that Germany could sell more to China by leaving the single market and the customs union is laughable. People who think Britain will boost exports by leaving the customs union are in for a shock.
President Donald Trump has shown what he thinks of British exports with his protectionist tariffs against Bombardier, the Canadian company that manufactures airliners for the US market from its Northern Ireland manufacturing facilities.
Britain runs a massive trade deficit in goods but a modest surplus in services – banking, consultancy, creative industries, tourism and education. None of these are covered by World Trade Organisation rules. It is hard to see how new vistas will automatically open up in these sectors once the UK leaves the EU.
These are uncomfortable facts of life that Britain’s Brexit negotiators have to bear in mind. Consolidating Britain’s Brexit campaign may not be a miracle cure. But combining forces in one superministerial portfolio might go some way towards producing a more effective and successful UK strategy in Brussels.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Minister of Europe and a member of the OMFIF Advisers Network.