Robbins becomes first Heywood fellow before move to Goldman Sachs

Appointment announced as former EU adviser recognised in Theresa May's honours list 

Olly Robbins with former prime minister Theresa May in Brussels for Brexit negotiations earlier this year. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The government’s former chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, will become the first-ever permanent secretary to take up a fellowship set up in memory of Lord Jeremy Heywood, before leaving the civil service for the banking giant Goldman Sachs.

Robbins, who was today appointed an honorary knight commander in former prime minister Theresa May's resignation honours today, will take up the Heywood Fellowship at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government immediately. The position is funded by the Heywood Foundation, which was set up in memory of the late cabinet secretary last year.

The prime minister has approved a three-month sabbatical, during which Robbins will explore “issues relating to public service and policy, outside of the immediate responsibilities of government duties”, according to the Cabinet Office. Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill said Robbins would use the fellowship to "make another strong contribution to the future development of the civil service".


“I am very pleased that the first of these prestigious fellowships has been awarded to someone who worked closely with Jeremy, and whom Jeremy mentored as one of the leading civil servants of his generation," Sedwill added. "Olly has had an outstanding career in government serving several prime ministers.” 

After the fellowship, Robbins will leave the civil service, where he has worked for 23 years, to become managing director in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs. Robbins stepped down as chief Europe adviser on 31 July and was on leave during August, according to a letter from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments approving the appointment.

Robbins joined the Treasury in 1996, where he spent a decade before becoming principal private secretary to then-prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He was deputy national security adviser and second perm sec at the Home Office under David Cameron, before being appointed perm sec in charge of coordinating the government’s approach to Brexit in July 2016.

He set up the Department for Exiting the European Union in the wake of the 2016 referendum on EU membership, while acting as chief Brexit negotiator and EU Sherpa to Theresa May.

Before his death last November, Heywood was among several senior figures who spoke up in defence of Robbins in the face of hostile briefings amid rising tensions around Brexit, responding on Twitter to reports that then-Brexit secretary David Davis had urged May to sack the adviser. After the briefings, Heywood retweeted a comment from Conservative MP Julian Smith, who praised the "world class" civil service for its role in helping to deliver Brexit, and said it was "deeply unfair" to attack individual civil servants. "Thanks for your support. The civil service will always be true to its values - honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity," Heywood wrote.

Since then Robbins has faced significant criticism from pro-Brexit politicians and commentators, leading to an unprecedented intervention from cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, who called in a letter to The Times for an end to "sniping" against civil servants working on negotiations.

Lady Suzanne Heywood, chair of the foundation, congratulated Robbins on the fellowship, which she said was had been set up to “continue the passion” her late husband had for policy innovation and diversity. “We are delighted that Olly will be our first fellow and I know that Jeremy would have felt the same way,” she said.

Robbins said it was “an enormous privilege to be given the opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges the civil service faces, as the first Heywood Fellow”.

“Jeremy, with his pride in the civil service and its values, remains an incredible inspiration to me and many other civil servants,” he said.

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