Brexit Bulletin: The new Whitehall departments

19 July 2016

Ministerial appointments tend to come with significant perks, and the post of Foreign Secretary in the UK is certainly no exception. When Boris Johnson received his unlikely new role, he also acquired access to a 115 room country house called Chevening, traditionally used as the country residence of the Foreign Secretary.

If Mr Johnson was expecting the run of the place, however, then his hopes were quickly dashed by the Prime Minister. He will instead have to share the residence with two other secretaries of state with new external-facing briefs: International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox and the Exiting the European Union Secretary (or “Brexit Secretary”) David Davis.

The Ministers

That all of these departments are headed by individuals within the Conservative Party who supported Brexit seems hardly coincidental, with some interpreting this as Prime Minister Theresa May’s way of indicating that she was determined to continue with Brexit. Others suggested the number of senior posts for Brexiteers pointed to a Cabinet designed to unite the Government.

Indeed, all of the appointments seem surprising in their own way. The Independent noted that tweets Mr Davies sent a few months ago pointed to a belief that the UK could negotiate individual trade agreements with individual EU countries – an option precluded by their continued membership of the bloc.

Moreover, since his resignation from the Shadow front bench in 2008 Mr Davis has been a particular critic of Government positions on issues related to civil liberties, an area where Theresa May faced particular criticism as Home Secretary. Last year he launched a still ongoing legal bid to take down the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in a case at the European Court of Justice.

However, he is a widely respected figure within his party, and while several media sources responded to the appointment with scorn others discussed his record favourably. Financial Times journalist David Allen Green said that he had been “a patient and successful Europe minister under John Major” and added that: “If any minister is capable of converting the Brexit referendum vote into something tangible, it will be him.”

He will be flanked in his new position by a prominent pro-Leave colleagues. David Jones, for instance, was the Leader of Wales Vote Leave, a campaign that saw a country that received large amounts of funding from the EU vote against continued membership.

However, not all in the new department are diehard Eurosceptics. Robin Walker was a prominent local campaigner in favour of Remain, while Lord Bridges of Headley is known more as a strategist within the Conservative Party.

While seemingly intended to placate the Eurosceptic wing of the party, the appointments seem to also have a broader aim to introduce as effective a negotiating team as possible.

The Lazarus-like revival of Dr Liam Fox has also been striking. The former Defence Secretary left his position in 2011 after a scandal around his working relationship with lobbyist Adam Werritty, but resurfaced as the least popular contender for his party’s leadership in 2016.

Described by the Independent as a “hardline right-winger”, Dr Fox’s Euroscepticism has long been matched with a keen advocacy of the UK’s ties to America, making his recent announcement that he will visit America next week to begin work on a trade deal rather unsurprising.

The Times reported that this would be part of a patchwork of 12 free trade deals he aimed to have in place by the time Britain left the EU, which he envisioned would be on January 1 2019. Talks with Australia and Canada have reportedly already begun, suggesting that Dr Fox’s work is currently progressing most fruitfully in the Anglophone world.

He will be assisted in his task by his new junior minister, Greg Hands, who is a dual US-UK national and who previously campaigned for the election of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1993.

It also appears, however, that the Department is continuing the Government’s long stated goal to target Asia and the Far East and build trade links.

Mark Garnier, another new appointment, was most recently Trade Envoy to Burma, Brunei and Thailand. Trade and Investment Minister Lord Price, whose appointment pre-dates the existence of the Department, made his first foreign trip since the referendum to Hong Kong.

Wars in Whitehall

The tussle between the interlopers and the Foreign Office is unlikely to stop at the use of a country estate, and the demands of two new departments on Whitehall have already begun a scramble for resources to cope with the extra demand facing the UK Civil Service as it negotiates its exit from the EU and takes on tasks delegated to the EU for almost a generation.

The germ of the new Department for Exiting the European Union lay within the Cabinet Office in the form of the Brexit Unit, established by then Prime Minister David Cameron the week after the referendum.

The Financial Times has reported that many departments within Whitehall have been asked to send teams of officials to the new Department.

Further, Britain’s lack of experience in negotiating trade deals has unsurprisingly left it with very few negotiators in place. The shortage for Dr Fox’s Department will thus require more than a simple poaching of staff from other departments, and will instead require the mass procurement of trade experts.

All this will only worsen the impact on the Foreign Office, already under pressure after years of job cuts and likely to face growing pressure during the negotiations process and the proceeding march into the wilderness.

The coming weeks and months will thus see Ministers and their civil servants competing for resources and attention as the new departments try to prove their mettle and the Foreign Office tries to prove its relevance. Chevening House will never have felt quite so small.


Madhav Bakshi, Political Analyst
Madhav Bakshi
Political Analyst

Madhav Bakshi is a Political Analyst within DeHavilland’s Editorial Team and leads on Energy policy. He is a graduate of King’s College London, where he studied International Politics.