Brexit Department head Oliver Robbins leaves, throwing government plans into chaos

Senior civil servant to move to new ‘coordinating’ role in Downing Street

Tom Peck
Monday 18 September 2017 13:07
Mr Robbins is said to have had a frosty relationship with David Davis
Mr Robbins is said to have had a frosty relationship with David Davis

The top civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union is to move to a new role in Downing Street after a spate of reported rows with Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Oliver Robbins is to take up a new “coordinating” job at No 10, having held a dual role, both as the top civil servant at the Brexit Department and Theresa May’s leading Brexit adviser; a position that had caused conflict at the top of the department since his appointment.

Government insiders claimed that it left Mr Davis frozen out of decision making, and that there was no personal warmth between the two men.

Mr Robbins’s departure from the department is just the latest chapter in a series of chaotic changes among civil service staff dealing with Brexit at the very highest level. At the start of this year, Sir Tim Barrow had to replace Sir Ivan Rogers as the UK’s ambassador to the EU, with Sir Ivan warning that government ministers had become unwilling to listen to or accept advice and guidance from civil servants.

A government spokesperson said Mr Robbins would continue to lead the UK side in the Brexit negotiations, but confirmed he would no longer work in the Brexit Department.

The department said in a statement: “In order to strengthen cross-government coordination of the next phase of negotiations with the European Union, the Prime Minister has appointed Oliver Robbins as her EU adviser in the Cabinet Office, in addition to his role as EU sherpa.

“He will continue to lead the official-side UK team in the negotiations, working closely with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and coordinate relations with the [European] Commission and Member States.

“The Prime Minister has appointed Philip Rycroft, currently second permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU and Cabinet Office, as permanent secretary, Department for Exiting the EU.

“The department will continue to support David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, to ensure a smooth exit and to seize the opportunities presented by leaving the EU.

“This will include his role as 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.”

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit secretary, said it smacked of “chaos”.

He told the London Evening Standard: “Moving key individuals at this critical time adds a whole new dimension to the Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit. Deep divisions in the Cabinet and a complete lack of leadership are putting the national interest at risk.”

Speaking during her trade visit to Canada, Ms May was forced to deny that Mr Robbins’ switch was evidence that the Brexit negotiating structure had been a “bit of a shambles”.

“No, not at all,” the prime Minister insisted to reporters. “What it is a sign of is that the negotiations are getting into a more detailed and more intense phase.

“As a result of that, I think it's right that Olly Robbins concentrates on that and obviously a different structure will be put in place in terms of the running of the management of the Department for Exiting the European Union and the permanent secretaryship there.”

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