Philip Rycroft is to retire as perm sec of the Department for Exiting the European Union at the end of this month, coinciding with the UK’s proposed date to leave the EU. In another unexpected senior Whitehall move, cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill announced that Defra perm sec Clare Moriarty will move to head up the Brexit department.
Rycroft was appointed DExEU perm sec in September 2017 after the ministry’s original perm sec Oliver Robbins moved to a post in the Cabinet Office to lead exit negotiations.
At DExEU, Rycroft led cross-government preparation for Brexit, but his retirement at the end of this month was announced today. His last working day will be Friday 29 March, which is also the day when the UK is scheduled to leave the EU under the Article 50 exit process. Currently, no exit deal has been agreed with the EU and the UK could leave the bloc without a deal unless an extension is agreed.
Paying tribute to Rycroft, Sedwill said that he had “demonstrated exceptional leadership of the department during his time as permanent secretary”. Sedwill added that he was grateful “for the enormous contribution he’s made to a number of departments during his years of public service”. He highlighted Rycroft's particular work in the Cabinet Office as head of the UK governance group, a role he retained after being intiailly named a second perm sec at DExEU in April 2017.
“Over the years, I have personally benefited from and valued Philip’s unparalleled expertise on constitutional matters and I wish him all the very best for the future.” Sedwill said.
The cabinet secretary said that Moriarty, who has been perm sec at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since 2015, had “a deep understanding of the practical and policy challenges and opportunities of Brexit” in her role at Defra, which is one of the departments most impacted by the policy changes of leaving the EU.
“I am delighted that Clare will be leading DExEU through the next phase and playing a central role in the entire government effort,” sedwill said. "I am also pleased that she will continue to lead vital components of the civil service’s corporate agenda, including as faith & belief champion.”
There is no comment from Rycroft in the Cabinet Office statement announcing the moves, however Moriarty said that it was “an honour to be asked to lead the Department for Exiting the European Union at such an important time for the UK”.
Moriarity, who told MPs last year that the risks around Brexit "keep me awake at night", said she was looking forward to working with Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and the civil servants in the department “to chart the way forward”.
She added: “It’s been my immense privilege to lead Defra for the last three and a half years, and my respect and admiration for colleagues across the Defra group is profound. We have led the way in preparing for EU exit while also progressing the government’s commitment to improve the environment within a generation, and continuing to deliver vital services for our customers.”
Defra is responsible for 55 of the government’s 319 work streams related to Brexit, giving it one of the heaviest workloads in Whitehall. In a report last September, the National Audit Office said the department had made “good progress in its preparations for exiting the EU” but had run out of time to deliver on all its plans for a no-deal scenario.
Tamara Finkelstein, currently leading on Defra’s EU exit preparations, will be acting chief of the department until a successor is appointed. A Civil Service Commission-led competition will be launched in due course to find a permanent successor to Moriarty.
Moriarty said that “Tamara Finkelstein and the senior team will provide stability and leadership over the coming months to enable the department to deliver its critical work”.