50 DExEU staff move to Brexit unit headed by Olly Robbins after Davis resignation – report

Staff switch comes as government seeks to bolster negotiating teams following Chequers proposal

Olly Robbins. Credit: Parliament TV

By Richard Johnstone

18 Jul 2018

A tranche of staff were moved from the Department for Exiting the European Union to the Cabinet Office unit advising the prime minister on the negotiations following David Davis’s resignation as Brexit secretary, it has been reported.

Around 50 negotiators have moved from DExEU to the central unit headed by Oliver Robbins, who is the UK’s lead official in the negotiations and had been moved from the role as DExEU permanent secretary last September to allow him to focus fully on the talks with Europe.

According to The Sun, the staff move was agreed in exchange for Davis’s replacement as Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, being copied in on all advice that Robbins sends to Theresa May, and invited to every meeting between the pair.


A Whitehall source told the paper: “This is a sensible backroom shift that reflects the surge in negotiating intensity we have been seeking and allows us to achieve the best deal.

“Dom will be an insider supporting the PM, privy to all advice and ensuring there is ministerial accountability. There will be no more policies by surprise”.

Davis resigned earlier this month, stating that he would be "a reluctant conscript" to the Brexit strategy agreed by the Cabinet at a landmark meeting at Chequers on 6 July. This set out plans to create a new "free trade area" between Britain and the EU to "avoid friction at the border, protect jobs and livelihoods, and ensure both sides meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland". This would include "a common rulebook for all goods" with the EU, and a legal treaty to ensure "ongoing harmonisation" with European regulations.

Asked by Civil Service World to confirm the staff moves following Davis’s department, a government spokesperson said: "DExEU will be responsible for all of the preparations for the UK leaving the European Union: domestic preparations in both a deal and a no-deal scenario, preparatory work for the detailed negotiations to implement the future framework agreement and all necessary legislation. 

“This will require a greater impetus following the Cabinet’s decision at Chequers that preparations in particular for no deal should be stepped up. 

“The prime minister will lead on delivering the plan agreed with her Cabinet colleagues at Chequers, supported by the secretary of state for exiting the European Union.”

Responding to the shift, Jill Rutter, the Institute for Government’s Brexit programme director, said it made sense if Robbins was to effectively lead the ongoing talks.

If they are going to lead the negotiations.. and I think they have to - @instituteforgov thinks this makes sense https://t.co/k3u3XBSjJz https://t.co/4Q5rfnSMy4

— Jill Rutter (@jillongovt) July 17, 2018

In a blog article last week, Rutter argued it was a mistake to set up DExEU and the Cabinet Office should now be given responsibility for negotiations, so DExEU can get on with ensuring Brexit readiness across government.

“If it was difficult to run the withdrawal phase from the Department for Exiting the EU – with only three big issues on the table – it will be impossible to run the second phase [on the future relationship] from a department headed by the most junior member of the Cabinet, the new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab,” she wrote.

“When we move to phase two of the negotiations, big and differing departmental interests will come into play. Trade-offs will need to be made. DExEU was seen to have its own agenda in terms of the type of Brexit to be pursued. Therefore, the rest of Whitehall did not regard it as an honest broker in phase one – and will not be able to play that role in phase two. Better from the start to plan for the negotiations to be supported directly from the Cabinet Office.”

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