Theresa May has removed powers for negotiating Brexit from the Department for Exiting European Union and moved them to the Europe Unit in the Cabinet Office, headed by the prime minister’s Europe advisor Olly Robbins.
The changes, set out in a statement to parliament, confirm May’s role as the government’s chief negotiator with the European Union, with Brexit secretary Dominic Raab named as her deputy. The Department for Exiting the European Union will continue to lead on all of the government’s preparations for Brexit, including for any possible no deal exit, as well as passing all necessary legislation.
“I will lead the negotiations with the European Union, with the secretary of state for Exiting the European Union deputising on my behalf,” May said. “Both of us will be supported by the Cabinet Office Europe Unit and with this in mind the Europe Unit will have overall responsibility for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations, drawing upon support from DExEU and other departments as required. A number of staff will transfer from DExEU to the Cabinet Office to deliver that.”
The statement also confirmed there would be no net reduction in staff numbers at DExEU as the department would recruit some new staff, and a number of Cabinet Office officials coordinating work on preparedness would also move to the department.
A DExEU spokesman told CSW that the staff transfers would amount to between 40-50 in each direction.
The changes come after Robbins, who is the UK’s lead official in the negotiations, moved from the role as DExEU permanent secretary last September to allow him to focus fully on the talks with Europe.
Yesterday’s statement confirms reports last week that a tranche of staff had moved from the DExEU to the Cabinet Office following David Davis’s resignation as Brexit secretary.
Raab told the Exiting the European Union Select Committee yesterday that the changes would create “a single consolidated team in the right place and the right level of ministerial responsibility, and the statement codified what we soon came to agree on”.
This would address what he called “some of the tensions that were widely reported” in the previous structure of the government’s Brexit officials, Raab said. Davis resigned earlier this month, stating that he would be "a reluctant conscript" to the Brexit strategy agreed by government to propose a new free trade area including "a common rulebook for all goods" with the EU, and a legal treaty to ensure "ongoing harmonisation" with European regulations.
Raab said that when he was appointed, he and the prime minister had “a very sensible conversation about the crossroads of the negotiation, some of the tensions that were widely reported, [and] what do we do to make sure that we have got optimum arrangements – one team, one negotiation, a clear chain of command, and that would put us in the very best position to get the best deal.”
It was a “caricature” that the arrangement, as set out in the prime minister’s statement, had downgraded DExEU, he added. “The Cabinet Office and DExEU have always had staff and expertise that have been informing the negotiation,” he said. “They will now be in one place. They will be supporting the prime minster with me deputising for her in the negotiations.
“What we have got is the officials hitherto who have been informing and supporting the negotiation in once place, with a ministerial chain of command clearly set out.”
Asked by committee member Jacob Rees Mogg about the changes, Robbins said there had been two teams of civil servants since his move from DExEU to the Cabinet Office – one advising the prime minister and one advising the Brexit secretary.
“As I hope you would expect, those two teams were the closest working teams in Whitehall, and they continue to be so, but I think what the secretary of state was describing and it is certainly our preference for how I want to support him in the job he has got to do, is it is more efficient and more effective if there is a stream of advice coming to the prime minister and secretary of state jointly that allows them to take a view on the key issues together.”
Robbins said he had a close relationship with Raab’s predecessor David Davis, but added: “I hope that the arrangement that has been agreed between the prime minister and the secretary of state for how they will be supported over this stage of the negotiation will be even more effective.”
Also in the session, Robbins revealed that teams from the Cabinet Office Europe Unit as well as from the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for International Trade, have been working together to achieve “as frictionless trade as possible between the UK and the EU.”
“Ministers, including minsters in departments, and not just the prime minister, have been testing us and probing us and challenging us constantly over the last few months of how are we going to deliver then government objectives.
“So in that sense from the day the Mansion House speech was delivered [when the prime minister set out plans for the UK’s future relationship with the EU on 2 March] we’ve been thinking about how we deliver it and how to make sure the negotiation position we advance with the EU is sufficiently precise to achieve our objectives.”