My new piece over at Telegraph Opinion on the appointment of Sir Tim Barrow as UK Ambassador to the EU (maybe ££):
Much commentary about Sir Ivan’s departure has focused on this strange passage in his message to UKRep colleagues, self-evidently written with speedy wider public readership in mind:
“I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power … to deliver messages that are disagreeable to those who need to hear them.”
Compared to almost everyone else in the UK’s 65 million population, Sir Ivan himself of course has been “in power”, having high operational and policy influence over all sorts of big decisions probably going beyond the “power” of many cabinet ministers. Nonetheless, here he’s swiping at ministers who (according to him) don’t like hearing Brexit bad news.
Sir Ivan is right. Ministers don’t like hearing bad news. No-one does. Ministers also don’t want to be confronted with smug top officials who echo the wailing Soothsayer in Up Pompeii: “Woe, woe and thrice woe!” Above all they don’t like being told that they are going to sink without trace in a Brexit swamp of turmoil.
At the highest levels of government (and everywhere else too) it’s all about tone. The difference between pessimism and optimism.
In choosing Sir Tim Barrow and going back to the FCO for this job, the Prime Minister has opted for a top adviser who will spell out frankly the issues and problems. But he is also an adviser who won’t bamboozle her with detail, or lugubriously dwell on the insurmountability of the mountain of problems that Brexit creates. What she hopes is that Sir Tim Barrow can help her chart a path towards the strategic deals needed with key partners.
Get the shape of the package right. Then the rest is detail?
Well, that’s the hope. Back in real life..?