Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is among the senior figures in government who have moved to support the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins after calls for prime minister Theresa May to sack her most senior advisor on Europe.
A series of articles in The Sunday Times yesterday revealed that May has been urged to stop taking advice from Robbins, who is the prime minister's sherpa in the negotiations and was moved to a standalone post as her most senior advisor last September.
Ahead of a Brexit cabinet meeting on Wednesday, where it is expected May will put forward a plan to create a customs partnership with the EU, which would see the UK collect import tariffs on behalf of Brussels while being free to set its own duties for goods bound for the UK, it was reported that Brexit secretary David Davis told the prime minister to shelve the proposal.
According to the paper, Davis said the PM should ignore Robbins' advice on the issue in favour of that of her ministers, with an ally telling the paper: “When prime ministers start following the advice of unelected advisers rather than her ministers, trouble follows. That way lies risk for her personally.”
However, an aide to Davis has since briefed that he has not threatened to resign over the issue and considered Robbins to be “a fantastic civil servant”.
Meanwhile pro-Brexit business group Leave Means Leave has called for him to be sacked and "replaced by someone from outside the civil service who will take a tough line with Brussels".
Robbins was moved from the Department for Exiting the European Union, where he was also permanent secretary, to No 10 last September in order to strengthen cross-government coordination of the next phase of negotiations with the European Union from the Cabinet Office.
In this post, he retained his role as sherpa leading the team of Whitehall officials negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU, as well as continuing as May’s chief advisor on Brexit.
Richard Tice and John Longworth of the Brexit-backing business group wrote in The Sunday Times: "At each stage, Robbins has presided over a bungled negotiating position on behalf of the UK, giving leverage to the EU and acquiescing to their every whim in a way no business person would do."
However, these articles brought a rebuke from senior figures including the government chief whip Julian Smith and May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, as well as from Heywood as head of the civil service. Smith tweeted that the civil service is helping to deliver Brexit, adding: “The quality of support/advice is world class. Attacking ind [individual] civil servants is deeply unfair.” Barwell retweeted this comment in agreement, which was followed by Heywood thanking the senior figures for their support.
— Gavin Barwell (@GavinBarwell) April 29, 2018
Heywood added: “The civil service will always be true to its values – honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity.”
Thanks for your support. The Civil Service will always be true to its values - honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity. https://t.co/ff7iYOOI0m
— Sir Jeremy Heywood (@HeadUKCivServ) April 29, 2018
Heywood’s predecessor as cabinet secretary, Lord O’Donnell, added that “civil servants advise, ministers decide – anonymous attacks on civil servants are a pathetic way of not facing up to policy differences: we need a clear Cabinet position”.
Civil servants advise,Ministers decide.Anonymous attacks on civil servants are a pathetic way of not facing up to policy differences: we need a clear Cabinet position.
— Gus O'Donnell (@Gus_ODonnell) April 29, 2018
The briefing also drew the fury from Dave Penman, the head of the FDA union that represents senior civil servants, who told CSW’s sister site Politics Home that it was unfair of politicians to "attack individual civil servants who they know cannot answer back".
He added: “It is ministers who decide, civil servants only advise. Attacking civil servants in this way, without even the courage to be named, only undermines the civil service and weakens the government at a time when the country needs both to be strong.”