The UK's chief trade negotiation adviser could quit 'any day' over Theresa May's Brexit deal

Ross Setford/Getty ImagesCrawford Falconer, UK Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser.
  • Exclusive: The UK government’s top trade advisor has privately expressed anger with the draft Brexit deal, according to multiple well-placed sources.
  • Insiders say that Crawford Falconer, who was appointed to negotiate free trade deals with Trade Secretary Liam Fox, is unhappy with Theresa May’s plan to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU for years after exit day.
  • Foreign officials believe he could quit the UK Department For International Trade “any day.”
  • “If we’re stuck in the Customs Union and forced to follow EU regulations, his role is basically superfluous,” a friend of Crawford told Business Insider.
  • DIT spokesperson denies suggestions that Falconer is planning to quit.

LONDON – The UK’s chief trade negotiator has privately expressed frustration with the Brexit withdrawal deal, multiple sources have told Business Insider, amid rumours that he is on the verge of quitting his role in the Department for International Trade.

Crawford Falconer, who was appointed to work alongside Trade Secretary Liam Fox on post-Brexit trade deals, could resign as chief trade negotiations advisor “any day,” according to foreign officials who work closely with him.

A DIT spokesperson said there was “no truth to these claims” and added: “Crawford is busy preparing to begin trade negotiations when we leave the European Union on 29 March.”

However, Falconer, who joined DIT in June 2017, has become increasingly frustrated with the direction of Brexit talks, particularly plans for the UK to be wedded to EU customs arrangements for years after exit day, according to well-placed sources.

A source at the department told BI: “He more or less came out of retirement for professional interest in hashing out trade deals. If the meatier parts of that job might have to wait until 2022, would someone in that position want to hang around?”

In October, Crawford told The Telegraph that his job would be redundant if the UK remained in a customs union with the EU after completing its departure from the bloc.

Under the draft Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will stay in the customs union for a transition period lasting at least 21-months and remain tied to EU customs rules until a UK-EU trade deal which preserves the frictionless Irish border is ready to be implemented. Figures involved in negotiations believe could take several years.

A report earlier this year suggested that Falconer, who is described by insiders as “highly opinionated,” had his role in Brexit talks “marginalised” by Downing Street. Before joining DIT, he was Special Trade Commissioner for the Legatum Institute think tank and held roles in international trade including New Zealand’s Chief Negotiator.

Insiders at the department told BI that Falconer has been close to resigning “several times” this year, including when May revealed her plan for a “common rule book” with the European Union as part of her Chequers proposals.

Falconer is angry with the prime minister’s decision to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU during the transition period and potentially beyond, as it will limit DIT’s ability to sign new trade deals, insiders claim.

“He certainly isn’t doing the role for the pay,” a friend of Crawford told BI.

“He took it up because there aren’t many opportunities to set up an independent trade policy for a western country. If we’re stuck in the Customs Union and forced to follow EU regulations, his role is basically superfluous.”

A source close to Falconer stressed that the UK will be able to implement trade deals in services and investment once the transition period is over. However, the UK will be limited in other areas as long as it remains tied to EU rules.

Liam FoxLeon Neal/Getty ImagesTrade Secretary Liam Fox.

Tom Brake, Lib Dem Brexit spokesperson and supporter of anti-Brexit group Best for Britain, said: “The PM’s deal makes it as clear as spring water that there hasn’t been, and probably never will be, a purpose to the DIT.

“It would hardly be surprising in the circumstances if people chose to walk.”

Fox has decided to stay in May’s Cabinet and push for changes to the Withdrawal Agreement rather than resign like ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and former Work & Pensions Secretary Esther McVey.

Last week, Fox urged pro-Brexit MPs who dislike the draft deal to stay loyal to the prime minister, stating: “We aren’t elected to do what we want. We are elected to do what’s in the national interest.”

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