Liam Fox and Boris Johnson are locked in a bitter Whitehall feud over who controls key parts of Britain’s foreign policy, a leaked letter seen by The Telegraph reveals.
Just weeks after the two men joined the Government, Dr Fox sent Mr Johnson the terse letter, which he copied to Theresa May, effectively demanding that the Foreign Office be broken up.
He also listed a series of economic statistics which called into question the Foreign Office’s ability to boost Britain’s economic ties with other countries and suggested that Mr Johnson focused instead on “diplomacy and security” including overseeing MI6 and GCHQ.
The Foreign Secretary is understood to have firmly rejected Dr Fox’s demands and Whitehall sources claim that the Prime Minister is “unimpressed with this sort of carrying on”.
The letter represents the first evidence of significant tensions between Mrs May’s Eurosceptic Cabinet ministers.
Last month, in one of her first acts as Prime Minister she unexpectedly appointed Mr Johnson as Foreign Secretary while establishing two new Cabinet positions for international trade and Brexit negotiations.
Dr Fox, a former Defence Secretary, was appointed to the international trade role and David Davis, a former Europe minister under John Major, was made the Brexit Secretary.
Whitehall insiders were anticipating tension between the three men – who are also being asked to share use of Chevening, the country home of the Foreign Secretary – but are surprised that the behind-the-scenes row has erupted so quickly.
In the letter, which was sent to Mr Johnson at the end of last month, Dr Fox said that under a “rational restructuring” the Foreign Office’s economic diplomacy team should be transferred to his department. The team helps champion trade and growth.
Dr Fox wrote: “In my first few weeks as Secretary of State for International Trade it has become clear to me that existing cross-Whitehall structures have meant that HM Government has not taken the holistic approach it might have on trade and investment agendas.
“For British trade to flourish there are clear requirements on us: to build the trade framework in markets through trade policy, to establish the conditions for trade and investment through foreign diplomacy, and to reap the harvest of those efforts.
“The role played by economic diplomacy is crucial to delivery of the objectives I have been set by the Prime Minister as International Trade Secretary and I believe it is imperative that this capacity is fully aligned with Government resources delivering trade and investment for the UK.
“If we are to have a rational restructuring I think there is a reasonable proposition to transfer the Economic Diplomacy function from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office into the Department for International Trade.”
He highlighted the fact that Britain’s current account deficit, the gap between the amount of goods, services and payments the UK sends to the rest of the world and the amount coming in, has reached record levels.
He said: “Now, more than ever, is the time we need to look to the Balance of Payments to bolster our economic performance. UK exports have remained flat since 2011 and the Current Account deficit fell to 5.4 per cent of GDP in 2015 – its poorest position since national statistics have been collected.
“I strongly believe this will be the only chance we get to materially change the approach we take to trade and investment and, as such, would urge you to consider this proposition favourably. If we fail to take this opportunity to restructure now I feel we will have a suboptimal structure for the future.”
He said added that unless Whitehall was restructured the co-ordination between trade officials in his department and those working on economic diplomacy in the Foreign Offices was likely to be “laborious”
He said in the letter to the Foreign Secretary: “The new approach would allow the FCO to retain clear leadership on diplomacy and security, including your crucial role overseeing SIS and GCHQ, while allowing the Department for International Trade to take clear leadership of the trade and investment agenda.”
Whitehall sources described the letter as an “institutional insult and assault” and said it was “highly presumptuous”.
Mr Johnson rejected the request and has instead agreed to “second a small number of staff with relevant expertise” to Dr Fox’s department.
A Whitehall source said that the letter “went down like a lead balloon”.
“There was no way that the Foreign Office was going to surrender one of its key functions to Liam Fox,” one source said.
The Foreign Office is also fighting a rearguard action to prevent its Europe Directorate being transferred en masse to the Brexit ministry.
Mr Davis has said that he will have the pick of the “most brilliant people” from across Whitehall to work in his new Department for Exiting the European Union.
“We’ve got ten people for every job so clearly fast-track civil servants see this as the place to be,” he said last month.
Last month Oliver Letwin, the former government minister tasked with creating a Brexit unit, admitted that Britain currently has no trade negotiators because the EU has led trade talks since 1973. Mr Letwin, former chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster who was sacked by Mrs May in the reshuffle, said that British trade negotiators are “basically working for the EU and it’s “up to them” whether they come to Whitehall.
He added that Mr Davis would “have to hire a group to deal with the EU negotiations” and train a “cadre” of civil servants to take on the process of exit.
“Liam Fox is also going to have to hire a group of trade negotiators, and then I think certainly some of the most experienced ones will need to be used probably to train up a cadre of younger civil servants to ensure that the experienced trade negotiators are supported by the brightest and the best of the civil service,” he said.
A government spokesman said: “We don’t comment on leaked documents. Alongside other departments, the FCO are seconding a small number of staff with relevant expertise to the new Department for International Trade. This is all part of the cross-government effort to ensure we make a success of Brexit.”