New Perm Sec takes the helm at DIT

By Tiffany Burrows

This summer has seen a change in leadership within the Department for International Trade (DIT). No, a Cabinet reshuffle has not passed you by, but a change of the department’s top civil servant may well have done.

Former Permanent Secretary Antonia Romeo moved to the Ministry of Justice in January this year, with her deputy John Alty taking over as the Interim Perm Sec until his retirement at the end of this month. It was announced in May that James Bowler would take over from Alty, and his first day on the job was yesterday (16 August).

What do we know about James Bowler? Very little, as one would expect of a career civil servant, but what we do know suggests he will be an effective leader within the relatively new department as it continues its post-Brexit mission of “securing UK and global prosperity by promoting international trade and investment and championing free trade”. The reasons for this are twofold.

Firstly, he has a critical understanding of government decision making. Having worked at the Treasury and as the Principal Private Secretary to two Prime Ministers (Gordon Brown and David Cameron), he has the political acumen required to lead a department like DIT that relies on Treasury support and whose success is dependent on how much weight Number 10 wants to put behind it.

This understanding will have been essential in his most recent position as the most senior civil servant leading the COVID Taskforce (a position he has held since October 2020). This role saw Bowler hold responsibility for the running of the Taskforce, leading the Government’s strategy to tackle the pandemic and its wider impact. Bowler himself sees his last post as good experience, referencing the pandemic in the announcement of his appointment: “I look forward to helping to secure further progress on trade agreements, export and investment promotion and levelling-up. I am excited to be joining such a skilled and dedicated group as we put trade at the centre of recovery.”

Secondly, his experience across government and his previous areas of focus including policy, communication, public spending, and analysis – will serve him well, as will his knowledge of other departments and their priorities. DIT cannot operate in a vacuum as the agenda it pushes forward requires cooperation with a range of government departments, including BEIS, Defra and the Cabinet Office.

In addition to the commitment of having 80% of the UK’s trade covered by Free Trade Agreements, Bowler will be responsible for overseeing the G7 trade track, pushing for WTO reform, encouraging investment, and promoting British exports, which will be no mean feat.