LONDON — The success of a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States rests in the hands of a high-ranking civil servant with a track record of getting what he wants in Whitehall — and, crucially, of understanding the Washington psyche.
Oliver Griffiths must steer complex negotiations that are fraught with competing political interests and consumer fears about hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken.
With the U.K. on the verge of introducing a brake on the £300 billion-worth of exports it sends to EU27 countries by leaving the blocs customs union, a lucrative (and ideally quick) trade deal with the worlds largest economy would give the Brexit project a much-needed boost. The outcome of trade talks with the U.S. could define the gamble of leaving the EU for decades to come.
Its against these monumental expectations that Griffiths will have to deliver. Friends and former colleagues say his unusual background, straddling the public and private sectors, as well as his time at the British Embassy in Washington, make him well-positioned to pull it off.
Nigel Sheinwald, the U.K. ambassador to Washington at the time, told POLITICO that Griffiths “knows the British and U.S. systems inside out.” He added, “When we worked together in the British Embassy in Washington a decade ago, Oliver was always totally on top of the issues and the politics around them, and a fighter against protectionism.”
Knowing his enemy will be crucial as Griffiths locks horns with his U.S. counterparts, but to be successful he will have to navigate the politics at home too. His civil service experience taught him the art of negotiation and how government works, former colleagues argue, while his time in the private sector endowed him with commercial acumen. Meanwhile, he is showered with praise from all sides for being competent and unflappable.
The Washington Griffiths left a decade ago now looks very different, of course. President Donald Trump has taken an extremely aggressive stance on trade and is prone to sweeping acts of protectionism in a bid to safeguard American production.
“[Griffiths] was here at a time when the world was more or less stable,” one senior U.S. business executive said. “We all believed in the World Trade Organization, and there were disputes between the U.S. and Europe, but we could work through them.” Indeed, Griffiths is familiar with WTO thinking, after spending four years leading the U.K. strategy in the Doha Round of talks among the member countries.
But Griffiths has been doing his homework on the new U.S. administration. He has been talking to U.S. negotiators for years in preparation for the formal talks that kicked off in May.
Trade experts who are familiar with both teams argue Griffiths and his direct counterpart Dan Mullaney — described as thoughtful, firm, reasonable and good-humored — are not so different. “I dont see this as a huge clash of personalities,” the business executive quoted above said.
The crucial difference between them is that Mullaney is more experienced when it comes to trade negotiations. He has been in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative since 2009.
Griffiths has other strings to his bow that observers believe are significant strengths.
On his return from Washington, he joined the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) where he set up the Green Investment Bank (GIB) — a state-backed infrastructure investor to provide financing to green projects. He later went to work for the bank during its first years as a private entity.
Jeremy Burke, who worked with Griffiths at BEIS before becoming finance director at the GIB, said setting up the bank “wasnt all beer and skittles.” Speaking from Australia, where he now works as an impact investor, he added, “There were tough moments in there where there were often competing interests within government, and within the setup team, and Oliver had to navigate that professionally and diligently.”
Oliver Griffiths must steer complex negotiations
The crucial negotiation was to make sure the GIB had flexibility in its access to Treasury cash outside annual budget structures. “Every year the Treasury says no when people ask for these kinds of arrangements, but it was duly negotiated by Oliver to accommodate what we needed,” Burke said. “We had a pivotal meeting with Danny Alexander [the Liberal Democrat former Chief Secretary to the Treasury], and Oliver was very strong in presenting our position and ultimately getting the outcomes we needed.”
Burke argued Griffiths succeeded because he “has a way of cutting through the crap to get things done.” He added, “Sound judgment and no bullshit was Olivers approach. The Green Investment Banks success was testament to that.”
Former Business Secretary Vince Cable, who led the founding of the GIB, said its setup was “a good workman-like job” by the civil service team. But he warned that launching the bank and negotiating trade with the U.S. are different ballgames. “Its a very different kind of exercise,” he said about the bank. “Its a much smaller scale problem.”
“I dont think youll get any dirt on him. Im not even sure there is any. Hes literally just a sensible guy” — Jeremy Burke, finance director at the GIB
Indeed, Griffiths will have to negotiate with tough opponents on issues ranging from agriculture to finance. He will need to traverse minefield issues like food standards — with a debate raging in the U.K. about whether chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef could be allowed into Britain as part of a U.S. deal.
Griffiths became head of government affairs and policy at the GIB in 2013 — given his strong ties into Whitehall. It was his first dip back into the private sector since he worked as a solicitor at the turn of the millennium.
Asked whether Griffiths was interested in the green agenda, one former colleague said, “Im sure he is passionate about it, but I think more than anything else hes somebody who relishes big, complex public policy tasks and throwing himself into getting them delivered.”