Departure of Whitehall official from Brexit team 'reveals Government chaos'

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The Whitehall official leading Britain's Brexit negotiating team has been moved into a role as Theresa May's adviser on the European Union, leading to claims the Government's approach is in "chaos".

Oliver Robbins has been shifted from Brexit Secretary David Davis's department to the advisory position in the Cabinet Office but will "continue to lead the official-side UK team" in negotiations.

The move may be seen as an attempt by the Prime Minister to take a more prominent role in shaping the talks, before her major Brexit speech on Friday in Florence, Italy.

Prime Minister Theresa May. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Theresa May. (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But it follows reports of personal differences between Mr Robbins and Mr Davis over the negotiations in Brussels.

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer questioned the wisdom of moving key individuals at a critical time in the process, claiming it "adds a whole new dimension to Government's chaotic approach to Brexit".

Former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said he was surprised by the move: "It seems an odd point to make this kind of change. I wonder how he can lead a process of negotiation and not also be leading the department responsible for that process."

Lord Kerslake "worries about the signal" moving Oliver Robbins sends to the European Commission about the UK's organisation over Brexit.

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The crossbench peer told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "I don't know exactly what's driving this move. It could be, as has been put out from Number 10, a simple case of the Prime Minister wanting more controlling influence over the process, it could be down to a clash of personalities."

Philip Rycroft has been appointed as Mr Robbins' replacement as permanent secretary at Mr Davis's Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).

Mr Robbins worked closely with Mrs May as second permanent secretary at the Home Office for a year during her tenure as home secretary.

Sources said he had been brought in to help set up DExEU and it now made sense for him to "focus solely on negotiations" rather than running the department.

Brexit chief David Davis. (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Brexit chief David Davis. (Jonathan Brady/PA)

A Government spokesman said: "In order to strengthen cross-Government co-ordination 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, and co-ordinate relations with the (European) Commission and member states.

"The Prime Minister has appointed Philip Rycroft, currently second permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU and Cabinet Office, as permanent secretary, Department for Exiting the EU.

"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."