UK PM takes direct charge of EU negotiation team from Brexit department

By on 18/09/2017
Oliver Robbins, now heading up the Brexit unit in the Cabinet Office, moved to the Home Office last year, from his previous role as the UK's DG for civil service reform in the Cabinet Office
Olly Robbins has left his DEXEU position, whilst retaining his job in the negotiations and taking on a new role as EU adviser in the Cabinet Office

The key civil servant managing Britain’s Brexit negotiations has moved into a new role reporting to prime minister Theresa May, in a move that will strengthen Number 10’s control of the Brexit process whilst weakening the influence of Brexit secretary David Davis. The change comes days before May sets out her views on the Brexit process in a major speech in Florence this Friday.

Olly Robbins had held three roles: permanent secretary at Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU); May’s Brexit ‘sherpa’; and the head of the UK Brexit negotiation team. But on Monday it emerged that he has left his DEXEU position, whilst retaining his job in the negotiations and taking on a new role as EU adviser in the Cabinet Office.

London’s Evening Standard, which first reported the story, quoted anonymous sources pointing to a rift between Robbins and Davis. Robbins had been seen as “trying to slow things down”, said one source, whilst another claimed that civil servants believe it impossible to deliver Davis’s goals.

Power to the centre

But Robbins’ move into the Cabinet Office resolves a tension in his job, under which he reported to both May and Davis – and means that the head of the UK negotiation team will report only to May, even whilst Davis ostensibly retains his role as ‘principal of the negotiations’.

As May prepares for her Florence speech, the shift strengthens her control of the negotiation process – improving her ability to offer the EU concessions that might be opposed by longtime Brexiteer David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who last weekend published a long article apparently pushing for a harder line in Brexit talks.

‘What price DEXEU?’

Commenting on the move on Twitter, Rupert Harrison, who was chief of staff to former chancellor George Osborne 2010-15, argued that it “strengthens the centre and puts No10/Cabinet Office back in charge, as it should be”. Having Robbins report to both the PM and Davis “and do negotiations while also running [DEXEU], wasn’t sustainable,” he said.

Lord Macpherson, the former permanent secretary of the UK Treasury, commented: “In short, normal service resumed. Expect others to join rush back to Cabinet Office as true centre of influence. What price DEXEU now?”

And Robin Gordon-Farleigh, the UK government’s news planner 2011-2017, backed Harrison and Macpherson’s comments, adding: “Robbins is trusted by the PM and provides a more hands on approach by PM. Muscle to the centre.”

Unifying a split role

Robbins’ split role had previously been questioned by UK think tank the Institute for Government, which argued in a research paper that “these dual responsibilities and parallel reporting lines will need to be managed carefully to avoid confusion and conflict.” The Institute also argued when DEXEU was set up that it could create the “need for separate capability in No10/Cabinet Office to serve the PM.”

Commenting on Robbins’ move, IfG programme director Daniel Thornton noted: “We’ve argued that Olly Robbins’ dual reporting risked confusion and conflict – sensible that this has now been resolved”. And Joe Owen, its senior researcher on Brexit, commented: “Robbins no longer has two hats/two bosses. Retains responsibility for negotiations, now clearly PM’s man on the ground. Not reporting to [David Davis].”

A former top official approached by Global Government Forum commented: “It was always a big ask, even for someone superb like Olly, to set up a new department and also be Sherpa. So, in many ways this is a sensible move. But it’s difficult to deny the optics are anything other than terrible.”

“Was always odd to have dual role [working] for both PM and DEXEU,” said Harrison. “This looks like an improvement to me”.

The rise of Rycroft

Robbins will be replaced as permanent secretary of DEXEU by his number two, Philip Rycroft. But his role will be substantially smaller than Robbins’ was: in a carefully worded statement, a government spokesman told the Standard that Davis remains “principal of the negotiations, leading on exit-related legislation, domestic preparedness for exit and engagement with stakeholders in the UK, including the devolved administrations, and in the EU27 and beyond.”

Although the spokesman said that Robbins will be “working closely” with Davis, their depiction of DEXEU’s role presents a narrower and more domestically-focused set of responsibilities than has been the case. The PM has clearly moved to extend her administrative control of the negotiation process; the question now is whether she will have the political strength to make concessions opposed by Brexiteers in her own Cabinet.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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