Inside the Whitehall power struggles behind free trade deals

Linda J. Dodson

Responsibility for Brexit trade talks lies instead with Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office secretary, chairman of both the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee and the EU exit operations Cabinet committee, known as XO, which oversees planning for the end of the Brexit transition period.

Given his role as head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until last year, whether the result of US-UK trade talks on food standards favours British farmers or free trade will be a telling sign of where power truly lies.

Tensions between the two ministers leaked into public view when a letter penned by Truss to other senior Cabinet figures, including Gove, warned that the new Brexit border plans could lead to smuggling from the EU and a legal challenge from the World Trade Organisation next year.

Trade experts say Truss had no choice but to defend the Department of International Trade (DIT) against future criticism, even if Brexit is not her remit.

“The trade ministry is operating in an incredibly hostile environment where on the one hand, everything it’s working on is accused of being a plot to give away the NHS or sell out farmers, while on the other, everything it achieves is immediately contrasted unfavourably with continued EU Single Market and Customs Union membership,” says Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former trade negotiator, says.

“Nowhere in history has there been a greater overselling by political figures of what a trade ministry can deliver and how quickly. DIT is going to spend the foreseeable future getting punched in the head.” The department said it did not comment on leaks.

Former trade officials say the same power struggle is reflected behind the scenes, as Crawford Falconer, DIT’s chief trade negotiations adviser and second permanent secretary, who was hired by Liam Fox as trade secretary, has been outshadowed by David Frost, the chief Brexit negotiator, who was recently appointed to replace Mark Sedwill as national security adviser. Falconer’s “spiky character” and lack of “comfort with the politics” haven’t helped, they say.

Down the ranks, since its inception in 2016, there has been speculation of a recruitment challenge at DIT, largely because trade negotiations had been delegated to the EU for nearly half a century. John Alty, the Trade Department’s director-general for trade policy, took to Twitter to vent his frustration about suggestions it would be difficult to find enough qualified experts to complete simultaneous trade deals. “We found them,” he wrote.

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