The UK ambassador to the European Union has resigned just months before the start of Brexit negotiations in a move critics said will damage the chances of a favourable exit deal.
Sir Ivan Rogers had been expected to play a crucial role in talks with the EU before news of his sudden departure emerged yesterday.
No reason for the decision was given by the Foreign Office, but the senior diplomat provoked anger among Leave-supporting politicians and commentators before Christmas for expressing the view among EU leaders that a post-Brexit trade deal with the continent could take up to ten years to negotiate.
The shock departure was cheered by figures including Ukip MEP Nigel Farage, who branded Sir Ivan a “pessimist”. However, Sir Nicholas MacPherson, the former top civil servant at the Treasury and a long-time colleague of Sir Ivan, said the resignation was a “wilful and total destruction of EU expertise”.
The Scottish Government’s external affairs secretary Fiona Hyslop said it was a “deeply troubling sign for the UK’s future relations with the EU” and claimed Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for Brexit were in “complete chaos”.
The ambassador had been expected to step down towards the end of this year, but told staff on Tuesday that he was moving his departure forward, and will vacate the role within weeks.
Downing Street played down the impact of the departure, saying it would allow Sir Ivan’s successor to help steer the two-year negotiation with Brussels without interruption.
Whitehall sources were quoted as insisting that the Brexit timetable, due to start in March with the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, would be unaffected.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Sir Ivan Rogers has resigned a few months early as UK Permanent Representative to the European Union.
“Sir Ivan has taken this decision now to enable a successor to be appointed before the UK invokes Article 50 by the end of March. We are grateful for his work and commitment over the last three years.”
The SNP’s Europe spokesman at Westminster, Stephen Gethins MP, said he would raise the matter in the Commons when parliament returns next week.
He said: “This is a disastrous start to the New Year for the UK government and their plans to take the UK out of the EU.
“Sir Ivan is a respected and experienced negotiator and his skills are badly needed by a government that has no clue over what happens next.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg claimed officials were “in the firing line if they do not endorse a zealous world view” on Brexit.
Calling the resignation a “body blow” to the government’s Brexit plans, Mr Clegg said: “If the reports are true that he has been hounded out by hostile Brexiteers in government, it counts as a spectacular own goal.”
Labour MP Hilary Benn, who chairs the Commons Brexit committee, said the timing of Sir Ivan’s exit was “not a good thing” and called on the government to “get its skates on” in naming a replacement to ensure the handover doesn’t interfere with negotiations.
The former EU commissioner Lord Mandelson said Sir Ivan’s departure was “a serious loss for us in Brussels” and claimed “everyone knows that civil servants are being increasingly inhibited in offering objective opinion and advice to ministers”.
Lord Mandelson added: “Our negotiation as a whole will go nowhere if ministers are going to delude themselves about the immense difficulty and challenges Britain faces in implementing the referendum decision.”
Sir Ivan was appointed by David Cameron in 2013 as the then prime minister sought to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU ahead of last year’s referendum.
Difficult talks failed to produce the treaty change that Mr Cameron was looking for, and ultimately ended in a package of reforms to benefits for EU nationals that struggled to win over voters in June.
Relations with the current governments are thought to have become strained after journalists obtained a warning from Sir Ivan that EU leaders believe a post-Brexit trade deal could take a decade to finalise, and even then may not be ratified by member states.
He also said European leaders believe the Brexit deal is likely to be a free trade arrangement rather than single market membership.
Leading Brexiteers welcomed Sir Ivan’s departure. Conservative MP John Redwood said the move was a “wise decision” and claimed Sir Ivan “didn’t really have his heart in getting us out of the EU quickly”.
Mr Farage said: “[Theresa May] should welcome it with open arms and put a firm Brexiteer in the position.
“I think it would be appropriate if a lot more people in that position, British ambassadors, left. The world has changed.”