After the headlines always follows the small print. So it is with the Government’s restructuring of Whitehall – particularly in the creation of two new departments, the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union. The announcement was the big moment, but it was also the easy bit. Now we are only starting to see the complex process of hammering out who does what, and how.
Both DIT and DEEU (Or Department X, as David Davis likes to call it) are formed at least in part from the powers and body of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The symbol of that carving up can be seen in the fact that Johnson, Fox and Davis are to share Chevening, the grace and favour home traditionally reserved for the Foreign Secretary. The three men will be sharing the grounds and the 115 rooms because they are also sharing what were formerly the FCO’s powers.
Quite how those powers are to be divided in practice is yet to be seen. Crucially, who will be in ultimate charge of the Brexit negotiations? The Mail on Sunday reported that Davis “is adamant he can pull rank on both [Fox and Johnson]” on the topic, but that notably hasn’t been said by the Prime Minister, conceded by the other two or, of course, tested in practice.
In a negotiation in which everything will be on the table, it isn’t hard to imagine a circumstance in which the Foreign Secretary might argue the Brexit discussions are extending into his wider responsibility for foreign policy and international relations. Or, for that matter, a circumstance in which the Brexit Secretary feels the FCO is impinging on finely-balanced discussions around leave the EU – for example when Johnson attends the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council. At the same time, the success of Brexit is bound up not just in negotiations with the EU but in Fox’s success in lining up trade deals for when we leave (Davis’s comment to Sky News that “I’m not going to set Liam targets” rather implies that he believes he has the right to do so if he wished).
It isn’t only powers being divided – various parts of the Foreign Office are already being moved to work for Davis, including UKREP in Brussels, while UKTI and UK Export Finance have been put under Fox. The fact that various anonymous officials have briefed The Times about a tug of war being fought over Whitehall staff is a sure sign that last week was the beginning, not the end, of this restructuring.