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Reshuffling Brexit: What to make of Olly Robbins’ move

The latest changes in Brexit personnel solve one problem but create a host more, argues Jill Rutter. 

Fourteen months ago, Olly Robbins was plucked from the Home Office by David Cameron to head up the new Brexit unit in the Cabinet Office, reporting through Oliver Letwin to the Prime Minister.

Less than a month later Cameron was gone, and Theresa May was Prime Minister. One of her first acts was to create a new Brexit department – the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) - and moved Robbins and his Cabinet Office team (then the European Issues Secretariat) to form the nucleus of the new department, headed by David Davis with Robbins as his top official.

The Institute for Government warned at the time that creating a new department would cause problems: the Prime Minister had the final call on the negotiations, but the new department and Permanent Secretary would report to their day-to-day boss. Robbins had three tasks – setting up and runinng a new department; acting as Davis’ top official; and being the Prime Minister’s chief Europe adviser. That was always likely to be a recipe for tension – unless the Prime Minister and her secretary of state for exiting the European Union were joined at the head, hips and feet.

And so it has proved. Yesterday’s news that Olly Robbins is to head the negotiations as the Prime Minister’s adviser, while his No.2 Philip Rycroft takes over the reins at DExEU, shows that the tug-of-war between the Prime Minister and David Davis has ended with Robbins being pulled firmly into the Prime Minister’s camp.

But while this has solved one problem it has created others.

In June last year, Robbins could support the Prime Minister with a team in the Cabinet Office behind him and a clear, direct relationship to the UK Representation in Brussels (UKREP). But that team is now in his old department – working for Philip Rycroft and David Davis. UKREP meanwhile has a dual reporting line to DExEU and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

So Robbins has no troops. The Europe operation in No.10 is small and there is no time to build any serious independent capacity in the Cabinet Office. Robbins is, we are told, to coordinate. But that was the point of DExEU – to coordinate. So he is now coordinating the coordinators, once removed. 

Those officials will need to know which way to look with multiple loyalties and forked reporting lines. These changes risk competing coordination – not a recipe for success when time is short and deadlines are looming.

In advance of the Prime Minister’s Florence speech and two more rounds of Brexit negotiations before the crucial October European Council, these changes send a signal of disarray across the Channel and undermine David Davis’ authority. The Prime Minister may have always wanted to conclude the deal – but now she is suggesting that the man she put in charge no longer can speak for her. In Brussels, does Michel Barnier and his team listen to David Davis? Or solely to Robbins as the Prime Minister’s surrogate? Will this move increase the likelihood of progress?

This is not the only change to hit DExEU this week. At the same time that Olly Robbins moved, a director who has been there from the very beginning of the department is moving on the civil service merry-go-round that Brexit has created to take up a role based in New York that was left vacated when Antonia Romeo became the Permanent Secretary at the Department for International Trade. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to staff churn, which is impeding the planning and execution of Brexit.

This is the last chance to get the Brexit staff structures right. The Prime Minister now needs to give Olly Robbins licence to work in a way that allows an effective partnership between No.10 and the department she created: DExEU. 

There needs to be a single and clear message to the EU 27 member states from the Prime Minister and David Davis, and the civil service must urgently find ways of minimising the churn in key posts.

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