Trade

Brexit and the revenge of the mandarin

The Brexit metaphor lexicon gains another entry this week. In a speech tomorrow the former top official at Liam Fox’s trade department will compare Britain’s exit from the single market to “rejecting a three-course meal now in favor of the promise of a packet of crisps later.”

As Martin Donnelly, who was permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade until last year, told POLITICO Monday, he will also suggest that securing full and equal access to the single market without accepting EU regulatory structures would require “not so much a skilled negotiating team, as a fairy godmother specialized in trade law.”

It is not hard to find former civil servants with years of direct experience of working with and in Brussels in Brexit despair.

An army of ennobled ex-mandarins are currently undergoing group therapy as they debate the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords.

But while Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dismisses Donnelly’s verdict (describing him as “my old friend Martin Donnelly of the Brussels Commission”) it is worth remembering that Donnelly has direct experience of post-Brexit Whitehall and is not some crypto-Eurocrat.

He was deputy head of the Cabinet Office European Secretariat between 1998 and 2003 before becoming a member of the personal staff of Leon Brittan, the then European Commission vice president.

But more recently he was hand-picked for the newly created Department for International Trade in 2016 after six years at the top of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills — the ministry involved in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the failed EU- U.S. trade deal.

He has worked directly on Fox’s “Global Britain” vision. At the time he kept his counsel. But his palpable disdain for the government’s post-Brexit trade plan may be a window into what many of his former colleagues think but are not able to say.

This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Pro subscribers. Sign up here.

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