4 Jan 2017

“Tiggerish and irrepressible”: the UK’s new ambassador to the EU

The new UK Representative to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, formerly our man in Moscow, is known to some around the Foreign Office as “Deep State.” That, I hear, is recognition of his all-knowing, omnipresence and a whiff of the “covert.” “He suddenly appears beside you when you were looking for him,” one Whitehall source said.

One diplomat said he preferred to describe Sir Tim as “very tiggerish, irrepressible, not things you’d naturally associate with Ivan (Rogers).”

There is clearly relief across Whitehall that they’ve found someone with experience of the EU who commands wide respect amongst ministers who’ve dealt with him. Philip Hammond is said to have greatly respected Sir Tim when Mr Hammond was at the Foreign Office. David Davis was asked for his approval of the new name. It was, as a courtesy, shared with Liam Fox, one source said.

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Sir Tim is known as a networker, gregarious and hugely creative. “He comes up with 27 ideas before lunchtime. Some of them, of course, are mad,” one old Foreign Office friend said.

There is relief in some quarters of Whitehall after suggestions in some newspapers that the government might look outside diplomacy for this top job, to business or politics. Instead, they have “one of our own” in the position. Any street parties planned for the death of the establishment may have to be postponed.

But how did we get here?

Friends of Sir Ivan Rogers feel his position became impossible after the leak of his own October email to the PM just ahead of the December European Council meeting. Sir Ivan is said to be 100 per cent convinced that the leak came from Theresa May’s most senior aides, her joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. They, the argument runs, had lost trust in him and wanted a fresh face. No. 10 says that’s a baffling theory with no clear motive.

What does Ivan Rogers’ departure tell us about the difficulties facing Sir Tim Barrow?

He speaks in his email to UKRep staff in Brussels of the UK being seriously out-gunned by the size of the forces and expertise marshalled on the EU side. There is some fear amongst diplomats that UKRep could lose some important officials thinking that they’re expertise isn’t being valued and their operation could be marginalised in the Brexit talks. Sir Ivan in his letter sounds like a man keen to make sure his exit doesn’t trigger an exodus.

Sir Ivan hints at difficulties getting certain points across to government figures. He takes a swipe at those who think when you leave the EU you can slip magically into a free trade agreement. Sir Ivan is said to believe that the only free trade environment that is not underpinned by agreement is smuggling. He is believed to think that some ministers consistently under-estimate how long it will take to construct a comprehensive new relationship even if both sides roughly agree on the destination. That, I understand, is an argument that Sir Ivan may have had repeatedly in private with the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis.

Sir Ivan Rogers had told friends before the referendum that he was happy to help with the Brexit negotiations if the country voted that way and he was wanted; more recently he’s told friends that he was keen to carry on to the end of the negotiations. But enemies in Whitehall wished it otherwise. They ambushed him with their leak of his email in December and he retaliated with an ambush of his own and a fresh email this week. Now his critics will hope they’ve killed off the first 2017 twist in the Brexit saga with a speedy and popular appointment.

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