- Reuters/Eric Vidal
LONDON – The top civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union has left his role after just one year, eighteen months before Brexit.
Oliver Robbins has left the post of Permanent Secretary at DExEU to focus on a job as Brexit co-ordinator in Downing Street a week before the fourth round of Brexit negotiations begin, the Evening Standard newspaper reported.
It was reported at the beginning of September that there was a “schism” between Robbins and Brexit Secretary David Davis over how Brexit should be dealt with, with the pair apparently having opposing styles.
The permanent secretary had allegedly annoyed the Brexit secretary by making decisions without his approval.
Robbins had previously been combining his role as head of DExEU with that of advising Prime Minister Theresa May on Brexit, while also devising the UK’s negotiating strategy.
The move suggests the prime minister will be taking a more active role in Brexit negotiations and comes ahead of her key speech on Brexit in Florence this week.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “Moving key individuals at this critical time adds a whole new dimension to the government’s chaotic approach to Brexit. Deep divisions in the Cabinet and a complete lack of leadership are putting the national interest at risk.”
Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable said this showed the “chaos and division” in the government over Brexit.
He said: “I’m glad someone has found an exit from Brexit. Unfortunately for the government, it’s the civil servant who was meant to be leading it. This is a sign of the chaos and division at the heart of this Government.
“Conservative ministers are trying to drive through an extreme Brexit no matter the cost, ignoring expert advice from civil servants. With Boris Johnson trying to grab the tiller of HMS Brexit, it’s little wonder the rest of the crew are jumping ship.”
The permanent secretary at DExEU is highly thought of in Brussels, with an EU source saying that he was “doing his best” despite the circumstances the UK negotiating team find themselves in.
A government spokesperson said: “In order to strengthen cross Government coordination of the next phase of negotiations with the European Union, the Prime Minister has appointed Oliver Robbins as her EU Adviser in the Cabinet Office, in addition to his role as EU Sherpa.
“He will continue to lead the official-side UK team in the negotiations, working closely with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [Davis], and coordinate relations with the Commission and member states.”
Philip Rycroft, who is currently Robbins’s deputy at DExEU, will take over as permanent secretary and Robbins will participate in the fourth round of Brexit negotiations.
The spokesperson continued: “The department will continue to support David Davis, the secretary of state for Exiting the EU, to ensure a smooth exit and to seize the opportunities presented by leaving the EU.
This will include his role as principal of the negotiations, leading on exit-related legislation, domestic preparedness for exit and engagement with stakeholders in the UK, including the devolved administrations, and in the EU27 and beyond.”
Labour MP Stephen Doughty, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign said: “We’ve already seen Lord Bridges and Lord Price, the Government’s ministers for Brexit and trade in the House of Lords, resign in recent weeks. This is just the latest indication that all is not well at DExEU.
“The Prime Minister needs to get a grip, and personnel changes won’t be enough – she needs to rethink her entire approach and put the Single Market and Customs Union back on the table.”
The news came following a weekend in which Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson laid out his vision for a “glorious” Brexit, which was seen as a challenge to May.
On Monday morning the prime minister refused to publicly criticise the foreign secretary, despite Johnson being rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for his use of figures.