The UK’s negotiating team will be led by Ministers and officials from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and two newly established government departments – the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) and the Department for International Trade (DIT). However, Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to take a leading role in negotiations with both the Commission and Council and at Member State level. Within the Cabinet, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond will also play a prominent supporting role given the UK’s focus on financial services and market access.
Although Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary holds one of the top three offices of state and would be expected to be a leading figure in the negotiations, his influence is limited due to the allocation of parts of his department’s responsibilities to the DExEU and DIT. Johnson is also unpopular within the European institutions and amongst EU foreign ministers owing to his prominent support for the Leave side in the referendum, while his comical, humorous style and off-the-cuff way of communicating meaning that he is unlikely to lead on detailed and technical agreements. Nonetheless, the UK’s most experienced diplomats, including the newly appointed Permanent Representative to the EU Tim Barrow, are drawn from the Foreign Office pool of talent and the department will provide the knowledge, insights and intelligence necessary to support the negotiation effort.
The bulk of the detailed work will be done by DExEU, overseen by Secretary of State David Davis. A businessman by background, Davis has a reputation as a shrewd negotiator stemming from his time as Minister for Europe under John Major At the parliamentary level, the legislative aspects of Brexit are being handled by Minister of State David Jones, who has won plaudits for his grasp of technical issues and steering the Article 50 legislation through the House of Commons.
DExEU, colloquially dubbed the Brexit Department, will lead on aspects of technical negotiations between the EU and the Commission, and is divided into six directorates covering Market Access; Justice, Security and Migration; Policy Coordination; Strategy and Planning, Trade and Partnerships and Analysis. Davis will be supported by the department’s Permanent Secretary Oliver Robbins, charged with overseeing the negotiations on a day-to-day basis and providing strategic support to Ministers.
Reporting directly to Robbins is Sarah Healey, who holds the position of Director General at DExEU. She will oversee a team of six directors, each focusing on different aspects of the Brexit process. These directors include Catherine Webb, who has been put in charge of market access and budget talks, and Antony Philipson, who will lead on trade and partnerships – but creating an overlap of responsibilities with the DIT.
DIT, headed by the Atlanticist and foreign policy hawk Liam Fox is tasked with negotiating new trade agreements with other countries. However, with the UK unable to begin formal talks until it has left the EU, the department’s role thus far has been limited. He is supported in this role by Lord Price, whose remit covers negotiations with the World Trade Organisation. Although DIT has few achievements to point to so far, it has begun informal negotiations with around a dozen countries into future trade deals.
To ensure better cooperation and communication between DExEU and other government departments, Tom Shinner, a former policy advisor in the Department of Education, has been appointed Director of Cross-Government Policy Coordination. However, the effectiveness of these structural arrangements is still to be tested, with DExEU and the Foreign Office having public rows in the early days of the government over allocation of responsibilities and the appointment of key staff within their respective departments. It has also been noted that Theresa May has a tendency to take control of decisions and settle matters herself – a strategy that may be difficult to sustain once the negotiations begin in earnest.