Brexit Department not as good as Foreign Office at ‘getting things done overseas’, FCO's top mandarin suggests

FCO permanent secretary angles for 'important role' for his department in Brexit

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The new Department for Exiting the European Union is not as effective as the Foreign Office at getting things done overseas, the Ministry’s top civil servant has suggested.

Sir Simon McDonald, the FCO’s permanent secretary, told the Foreign Affairs Committee that other departments did not have some of the same abilities as his ministry and were reliant on its capabilities.

The claim comes after the FCO was denied the lead role in Brexit negotiations after the creation of the new Brexit department, and responsibility for trade was stripped out from the centuries-old ministry and handed to the new Department for International Trade.

“We are, I think, the Ministry that knows best how to get things done, especially officially, overseas,” Sir Simon told the committee at a hearing on Tuesday.

“In embassies around the world other parts of government nestle under the efforts led by the ambassador or high commissioner.

“I think the FCO has a key convening and coordinating role for all parts of Government.”

The claim is likely to fuel tales of a bitter turf war between the departments over Brexit and other responsibilities that have traditionally been the sole preserve of the Foreign Office.

Sir Simon admitted that DExEU would be playing the "lead role" in Brexit negotiations but said the "FCO would still be playing an important role".

The splitting out of the Foreign Office’s portfolio caused some amusement over the summer after it emerged that the Foreign Secretary’s official country residence would also be shared out between the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Sir Simon said of his department’s role in Brexit: “I think during the exit negotiation the Foreign Office is playing an important role, but clearly the lead role is Mr Davis and the Department for Exiting the European Union. The clue is in the title of his department of state.”  

The civil servant’s claim comes as Brexit Secretary David Davis holds meetings with a string of EU officials in recent days, including European Parliament chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt and European Commission negotiator Michael Barnier.

Negotiations will not begin until Article 50 is triggered; Theresa May has said the treaty clause will be brought into effect in the first quarter of 2017.