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CM says UK ambassador to Spain is ‘champion’ of Gibraltar, amid row over Raab and ‘boots on the ground’ claim

Dominic Raab, the then Foreign Secretary, pictured with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo during a visit to Gibraltar in March 2021.

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo on Saturday described Hugh Elliott, the UK ambassador to Spain, as a “champion of the cause of Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians”, after the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab sparked a furious row centred in part on a 2020 episode during the Brexit negotiations on Gibraltar.

Mr Raab resigned on Friday after accepting a bullying inquiry found he acted in an intimidating and aggressive way with officials, including with a senior diplomat who he claimed “put UK sovereignty at risk” during the talks leading to the New Year’s Eve agreement.

Newspaper reports in the UK on Saturday claimed the diplomat in question was the UK ambassador to Madrid, who Mr Raab, while he was Foreign Secretary in 2020, believed had gone beyond the Cabinet agreed position to never have Spanish officers permanently stationed in Gibraltar.

The Telegraph reported that, according to Mr Raab’s allies, Mr Elliott had been sounding out a “fudged” solution with Spanish counterparts that would have seen some Spanish officers stationed in Gibraltar.

“The charge was a serious one – that an official had gone beyond the Cabinet mandate, the official approach dictated by the top table of government ministers, and had freelanced on policy,” the newspaper reported.

“A more sympathetic interpretation, perhaps, would be a diplomat attempting to find a landing zone for high wire negotiations.”

“But in Mr Raab’s eyes, a red line had been crossed.”

According to the newspaper, Mr Elliott was effectively removed from the front line of talks but remained ambassador.

In his place, Simon Manley, who had spent six years as UK ambassador to Spain before Mr Elliott, was sent out to conduct negotiations.

On Saturday the Chief Minister was robust in his defence of Mr Elliott, who remains a key player in the negotiations for a UK/EU treaty on Gibraltar and has spoken publicly about the process on numerous occasions since the reported 2020 incident with the minister.

“Hugh Elliot has been a champion of the cause of Gibraltar and the Gibraltarians since he arrived in Madrid,” Mr Picardo said.

“We have not seen any statement or conduct by Mr Elliot which has been anything other than supportive of our positions and in pursuit or the outcomes that the Governments of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom are jointly pursuing.”

“Hugh Elliot is a committed patriot and a friend of Gibraltar and the cause of the Gibraltarians.”

“No one should think otherwise.”

A spokesperson for the UK embassy in Madrid declined to comment on the reports.

The Chronicle has contacted the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for comment.


In the framework agreement announced on New Year’s Eve, the UK, Spain and Gibraltar agreed that Frontex would be asked for a period of four years to assist with Schengen immigration checks inside Gibraltar.

One of the core aims of the negotiation is to guarantee border fluidity by establishing a common travel area between Gibraltar and the Schengen zone, effectively removing immigration controls at the border.

Schengen checks would instead be carried out at the airport and port after clearing Gibraltar immigration.

But those checks would require EU oversight, to be provided by Spain - as the nearest Schengen member - with assistance from Frontex as set out in the New Years Eve framework agreement.

The presence of “Spanish boots on the ground” remains a red line for the UK and Gibraltar governments.

In a resignation letter on Friday, Mr Raab acknowledged that there had been “two adverse findings” made by senior lawyer Adam Tolley, KC, following the conclusion of a months-long probe into eight complaints.

But he warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak that it set up a “dangerous precedent” for ministerial behaviour by setting a “low” threshold for bullying.

In his letter, Mr Raab said one of the findings related to his time as Foreign Secretary when he was involved in the discussions on Gibraltar’s post-Brexit relations with the European Union.

At the time the UK, Gibraltar and Spain were engaged in intense negotiations that ultimately led to the New Year’s Eve framework agreement that forms the basis for ongoing talks on a UK/EU treaty for Gibraltar.

In the letter, Mr Raab said “…ministers must be able to exercise direct oversight with respect to senior officials over critical negotiations conducted on behalf of the British people, otherwise the democratic and constitutional principle of ministerial responsibility will be lost.”

“This was particularly true during my time as Foreign Secretary, in the context of the Brexit negotiations over Gibraltar, when a senior diplomat breached the mandate agreed by Cabinet.”

Mr Raab offered more detail on his version of the episode in an opinion piece published by The Telegraph on Friday.

In it, he wrote that “…as Foreign Secretary, I made changes to the personnel conducting the Brexit negotiations on Gibraltar with Spain, having found out a senior negotiator had gone beyond the democratic mandate set by Cabinet, putting UK sovereignty at risk.”

“The change involved no demotion or longer-term detriment.”

“It was essential to securing a deal with Spain at 1am on New Year’s Eve 2020 – a week after the main UK-EU Free Trade deal was done – and perilously close to a ‘no deal’ for Gibraltar.”

“Nevertheless, Mr Tolley concluded that I had abused my position in relation to that official, having expressed my frustration at the lack of candour I received.”

“He did not conclude it was intentional – which is the legal requirement under the definition of bullying.”

“No-one at the time raised my conduct from the meeting, and no complaint was made until two and a half years later.”

Mr Tolley’s report itself contains no specific reference to the Gibraltar negotiation, though it outlines a complaint from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office relating to interactions between Mr Raab and civil servants.

Mr Tolley noted the circumstances of the complaint “are such that very few details can be included in the report without involving a breach of confidentiality”.

The complaint related to Mr Raab’s period as Foreign Secretary.

“The DPM [Mr Raab] exercised his executive judgment in a particular way, which he was entitled to do as a form of legitimate management choice,” Mr Tolley’s reports said.

“The DPM had formed an adverse view as to the way in which civil servants had acted in relation to an ongoing work project.”

In taking that ‘management choice’, “…he acted in a way which was intimidating, in the sense of unreasonably and persistently aggressive in the context of a workplace meeting.”

“His conduct also involved an abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates.”

“In particular, he went beyond what was reasonably necessary in order to give effect to his decision and introduced a punitive element.”

“His conduct was bound to be experienced as undermining or humiliating by the affected individual, and it was so experienced.”

Mr Tolley’s reported noted too that on a “separate but closely related” occasion “concerned with the same subject matter”, Mr Raab referred to the Civil Service Code that could have been understood as suggesting it had been breached.

The reference had “a significant adverse effect” on one official who “took it very seriously”.

“The DPM’s conduct was a form of intimidating behaviour, in the sense of conveying a threat of unspecified disciplinary action,” Mr Tolley said in the report.

“He did not target any individual, nor intend to threaten anyone with disciplinary action.”

“However, he ought to have realised that referring in this way to the Civil Service Code could have been understood as such a threat.”

The exchange led to Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the [FCDO] and a former Deputy Governor of Gibraltar, telling Mr Raab during a private, informal meeting that he should not threaten officials with reference to the Civil Service Code.

Mr Tolley said there were some findings of fact that could potentially mitigate - but not justify – Mr Raab’s conduct in relation to the FCDO complaint, including that others may have “…underestimated the extent to which the DPM wished to be involved in the detail of decision-making.”

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