Whitehall needs to get its Brexit act together

The official website of Chevening House, the country residence of the foreign secretary, still lists Philip Hammond as the present occupier.

That they have yet to update the site since Boris Johnson took over as the UK’s most senior diplomat is perhaps a reflection of the confusion caused by Theresa May (somewhat mischievously) asking Boris to share use of the country pile with David Davis and Liam Fox.

Tenancy arrangements aside, the newly created roles of secretaries of state (for Brexit and international trade, respectively) are also giving Boris a headache in Whitehall. As Davis takes stock of the legal and constitutional mountain ahead of him, Fox has launched an attempted land-grab on the economic diplomacy unit of the Foreign Office.

In a letter to Boris, leaked over the weekend, Fox claimed that assuming control of this team is “crucial to the delivery of the objectives I have been set by the Prime Minister”. Boris is said to have rejected the request in the firmest possible terms. The row provides a mere glimpse of the wrangling and restructuring that will descend upon Whitehall in the months and years ahead.

Read more: Liam Fox’s trade ministry just deleted this confusing Brexit statement

Fox might be starting a turf war but frankly, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Systems and structures that have evolved over decades are going to have to adapt to the biggest shakeup of the British state in living memory. Fox didn’t help matters with a clumsily worded (and hastily retracted) press release last week in which he suggested the UK could operate under World Trade Organisation rules until striking a new deal with the EU.

Meanwhile, the world looks on and wonders quite how it will engage with the UK, and on what terms, once it officially leaves the EU. Here, at least, there is some good news.

Read more: William Hague’s 10 step guide to being foreign secretary for Boris Johnson

A survey by consultancy giant FTI of nearly 1,000 business leaders from nine countries including the USA, Singapore, India, China and Brazil shows 74 per cent support the idea of their country striking a free trade deal with the UK. Indeed, 72 per cent say their firm would look for opportunities in the UK once it leaves the EU. It seems that if our politicians can just figure out who sits where in Whitehall, the world is ready and waiting to talk.

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