Oliver Robbins's move to top Brexit role in Number 10 ‘raises more questions than answers for Whitehall’

Written by Richard Johnstone on 19 September 2017 in News
News

Move of civil service’s chief Brexit negotiator to the Cabinet Office will require new structures to be established with “time at a premium”, says IfG.

The move of the government’s top Brexit civil servant from the Department for Exiting the European Union to Number 10 creates new challenges for cross-Whitehall working on Brexit, Civil Service World has been told.

Yesterday’s announcement that Oliver Robbins, the permanent secretary at DExEU is to move to a new post to coordinate the government’s Brexit policy from the Cabinet Office means that government will need to create new relationships between two departments, Institute for Government senior researcher Joe Owen told CSW.

In his new role as the EU adviser in the Cabinet Office working for the prime minister, Robbins will continue to lead the team of Whitehall officials negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU in his role as sherpa, as well as continue as May’s chief adviser on Brexit, but will no longer run DExEU.


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A statement from the department said the move was intended to “strengthen cross government co-ordination of the next phase of negotiations with the European Union”.

Owen told CSW that this was a recognition of the difficulties Robbins faced as both the lead official in the Brexit negotiations and also the official running the department preparing Brexit legislation and domestic policy implications.

“This is the realisation of the challenge of having two reporting lines – one into Number 10 and one into [DExEU secretary] David Davis – and the challenge of two jobs: running a department at the same time as trying to run these very big very complex negotiations.”

However, Owen said that the move does not resolve these issues since it raises questions about how the relationship between Robbins in the Cabinet Office and DExEU – led by new permanent secretary Philip Rycroft – would work.

“Olly is no longer supported by a department and there is no time to build a new operation in Cabinet Office. It’s not yet clear who is team will be and how he will run the talks from an official perspective. What is clear is that his relationship with his old department and its new boss, Philip Rycroft, will be key.

“The move has almost raised more questions than answers into his relationship now with DExEU and the support he will receive.”

Robbins’s switch is likely to see Number 10 take an increased responsibility for the exit talks, with the fourth round of Brexit talks set to take place next week.

Robin Gordon-Farleigh, the former senior civil servant who oversaw the UK government ‘grid’ of events and announcements from 2011 until earlier this year, told CSW that it was “inevitable that PM would become more hands on as negotiations went further down the track”.

As a result, a “bolstered, stronger & more influential centre” would be required as talks progressed, he said.

 

Former adviser to George Osborne, Rupert Harrison, tweeted that the move “strengthens the centre and puts No10/Cabinet Office back in charge, as it should be”, while Lord Nicholas Macpherson, the Treasury perm sec from 2005 until 2016, added that the announcement could prompt more officials to move to the Cabinet Office which is once again the “true centre of influence”.

Owen also warned that if Robbins’s move was seen as a power shift away from DExEU to Number 10, it could impact on the Brexit department’s ability to retain and recruit top staff, when “time is clearly at a premium”, six months into the two-year Article 50 process.

He highlighted that, in addition to Robbins’s move, it was yesterday announced that Antony Phillipson, the director of trade and partnerships at DExEU, would move to New York to replace new Department for International Trade permanent secretary Antonia Romeo as UK government consul general in New York. These are the first major changes to the DExEU leadership team since the department was created in July 2016.

“Churn is a challenge in government, but until yesterday the DExEU top team had been static pretty much from day one, and now we’ve seen some movement from couple of key posts that inevitably has an impact,” he added.

“DExEU still retains the important function of trying to get the legislation in place and also trying to understand and coordinate what the day one implications are for domestic policy, but there is a question of what will happen if this is seen as a very key power shift from DExEU to the Cabinet Office and Number 10. Will that affect DExEU’s ability to recruit the brightest and the best in Whitehall? It is hard to tell at this stage.”

Lord Peter Rickets, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, told CSW it was a “good question” whether the government should have created DExEU in the first place. “In my experience re-doing Whitehall plumbing rarely increases the water flow,” he said on Twitter. However, he added that Robbins’s move was being “over-hyped”.

“Robbins will continue to coordinate Brexit work from No10 and do the negotiations, but not run DExEU,” he said.

About the author

Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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