Robbins remains chief civil servant in UK Brexit team

By on 05/02/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Olly Robbins: UK’s chief Brexit negotiator survives replacement rumours.

The civil servant leading the UK negotiation team has survived sustained pressure from Brexit-supporting politicians, who believed they had been promised that he would be replaced.

Hard line MPs in the Euro-sceptic European Research Group (ERG) said they had been assured – prior to a crunch House of Commons vote – that chief negotiator Olly Robbins would be replaced in favour of Crawford Falconer, chief trade negotiation adviser at the Department for International Trade.

However, following the vote last week – which saw MPs vote for the Northern Irish backstop to be replaced with “alternative arrangements” – the prime minister’s spokesperson was widely reported in national newspapers including The Guardian to have denied there would be changes to the civil service team.

The spokesperson said: “In terms of the civil service side, the team, which is led by Ollie Robbins, remains the same.” The reports quoted Downing Street as saying that there had been a “misunderstanding” over the issue.

“Obstruction” criticised

But the spokesperson did signal that the next phase of talks would be run by Brexit secretary Steve Barclay, attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, David Lidington, rather than officials.

Appearing before the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee after the vote, ERG deputy chairman and former Brexit minister Steve Baker added: “My experience in government tells me that our chief trade negotiation adviser, Crawford Falconer, has been cut out of our chief trade negotiation. And that is a stupid mistake.”

And ERG chairman Jacob Rees Mogg told the Telegraph: “It is the job of officials to implement policy, not to obstruct, and any civil servant is bound to respect this.

“The European Research Group understood that Crawford Falconer would be involved in future negotiations and it would be surprising if this did not happen.”

Last month, the Times reported that New Zealander Falconer had expressed frustration about being excluded from Brexit negotiations. The paper reported that his attempts at securing a role as part of the UK team had been blocked by Robbins.

Alternatives doubted

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported that Robbins had raised doubts about the amendment – backed by the government – on securing “alternative arrangements” to the backstop.

According to the paper, in a series of emails to senior officials, Robbins questioned whether the European Union would be willing to make significant changes.

He also is said to have voiced doubts over the practicality of a further plan – known as the “Malthouse compromise”, which would see a three-year transition period after which the UK would leave on World Trade Organisation terms if no deal with the EU could be reached.

One source told the Telegraph: “The gist of the email was that it [the compromise] wasn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Former Labour minister and anti-Brexit campaigner Lord Adonis, tweeted: “No 10 has committed a fatal mistake of briefing against its own Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins and discussing his replacement with the ERG. 

“This is leading to a deepening crisis in Whitehall, which has been leaderless since the tragic death of [former civil service head] Sir Jeremy Heywood.”

About Colin Marrs

Colin is a journalist and editor with long experience in the government and built environment sectors. He cut his teeth in local newspaper journalism before moving to Inside Housing in 1999. He has worked in a variety of roles for built environment titles including Planning, Regeneration & Renewal and Property Week. After a spell at advertising industry bible Campaign magazine, he became a freelancer in 2010. Since then he has edited, local government finance publication and contributed news and features to Civil Service World, Architects’ Journal, Social Housing, management titles and written white papers for major corporate and public sector clients.

One Comment

  1. mike page says:

    I am no believer in the ‘fear campaigns’ but the cost of a 3 year delay to Brexit after March 2019 could easily surpass a managed ‘no deal’. What could possibly be the point in extending the time for decision making after the 29th March this year – both sides will focus on speedy resolutions when the deadline is imminent.

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