Sir Leigh Lewis: Olly Robbins deserves admiration not abuse for his Brexit work

Written by Sir Leigh Lewis on 19 October 2018 in Opinion

When the history of Brexit is written, it will be some of this country’s political leaders, not its civil service, that will be subject to the harshest scrutiny, says the former DWP perm sec

Olly Robbins (right) gives evidence to the Brexit select committee with Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. Photo: PA

Sir Mark Sedwill, the acting cabinet secretary, took the highly unusual step of writing to The Times on 16 October to defend the prime minister’s lead EU adviser, Olly Robbins, against a series of charges that he has been leading a covert insurrection against the outcome of the Brexit referendum. That he should have had to do so shows the levels to which political debate has descended in the two and a half years since the referendum took place.

What is the crime of which Olly Robbins stands indicted? Shorn of the delusional conspiracy theories of the most extreme Brexiteers, it appears to come down to two things; first that he has been doing his utmost to deliver the Prime Minister’s objective of a Brexit which secures the best possible outcome for the UK; second that, in so doing, he has pointed out to the Prime Minister and her colleagues some of the realities of the UK’s position as opposed to the fantasies which some of her opponents continue to put forward.


Nor is Olly Robbins the only senior civil servant to have been subjected to personal abuse for having done the latter. The head of HMRC, Jon Thompson, recently told an audience at the Institute for Government that he had received death threats after setting out in evidence to the Treasury Select Committee his assessment of the cost to business of a number of post-Brexit customs options.

It has, of course, always been an occupational hazard for senior civil servants to be held responsible for the political decisions of ministers. Far easier to blame the manager or the messenger than to own up to one’s own political failures. But I wonder if in modern times there has ever been so toxic a climate or so blatant an example as this.

If ever the definitive history of Brexit comes to be written – and if it ever is it will be long after my own lifetime – it will be some of this country’s political leaders, not its civil service, that will be subject to the harshest scrutiny; politicians who bet the country’s future to save their own political skins; politicians on both sides of the referendum debate who blatantly and deliberately misled the public about the consequences of leaving or remaining, or who stayed almost totally silent when they could have led; politicians who promised pots of gold which never existed and never will; and above all politicians on all sides of the House who, even now, are manoeuvring constantly for personal or political advantage - and in some cases pursuing naked political ambition - rather than making any serious attempt to give effect to the result of the referendum in a way which will maximise the advantages, and minimise the disadvantages, of our leaving the EU.

As a country we have very few cards in our hand at this point; a prime minister who is at least trying to secure a Brexit with which we can live; some in the EU who recognise that a ‘no deal’ outcome will be almost as bad for the EU as it will be for the UK; and a civil service, or in this case a civil servant, Olly Robbins, who is continuing to try to deliver the policies of the government of the day, even when it is a government presiding over a party and a country which has never been more divided and uncertain. For me, and I suspect many of his civil service colleagues – both current and former – Olly Robbins deserves not abuse but admiration for going on doing his job despite the chaos around him. I hope that others, besides Sir Mark, will stand up to be counted in his support.

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Sir Leigh Lewis
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Sir Leigh Lewis was Permanent Secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions from 2005-2010. Amongst other roles he is chair of the alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, and vice chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

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