Brexit department head Oliver Robbins leaves government in 'chaos' as he quits

Here’s what happened

Plunging Theresa May’s Brexit plans into further disarray, Oliver Robbins has decided to move from permanent secretary at the department for exiting the European Union (DExEU) to a coordinating role at Downing Street after a spate of reported rows with Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Government officials said Robbins will still take part in next week’s fourth round of Brexit talks alongside Davis, but working for the Prime Minister. The development comes as two allies of Boris Johnson said the Foreign Secretary is prepared to walk out of the Cabinet if May bows to pressure for a “soft” Brexit.

Robbins’ departure from the department is just the latest chapter in a series of chaotic movements among civil service staff dealing with Brexit at the very highest level. At the start of this year, Sir Tim Barrow had to replace Sir Ivan Rogers as the UK’s ambassador to the EU, with Sir Ivan warning that government ministers had become unwilling to listen to or accept advice and guidance from civil servants.

Johnson’s camp and the implied threat follows hostile reaction from Cabinet rivals to the article setting down his personal demands for a hard Brexit, which most MPs saw as an attempt to box in May ahead of her planned speech in Florence on Friday.

Michael Gove said today that he backs Johnson, Gove said that Johnson had been correct regarding the contributions to Brussels, the UK could gain control over the £350m a week contribution.

Gove said in a tweet: “Debate should be forward-looking on how to make most of life outside EU - not refighting referendum.”

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, said it smacks of “chaos.”

“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.”

In Brussels, Robbins is seen as a good match for deputy chief Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand, the sharp-witted German Commission official.  He has the respect of EU negotiators, who feel he has been “doing his best”, despite the political machinations in London, said one official close to the Brexit talks.

He is known among his counterparts in Europe for his depth of knowledge and good humour, though his casual attire prompted a rebuke from one UK official ahead of the August negotiating round after he attempted to attend a meeting in shorts on a hot Brussels summer day.

A government spokesperson said Robbins would continue to lead the UK side in the Brexit negotiations, but confirmed he would no longer work in DExEU. Philip Rycroft, who is currently Robbins’s deputy at DExEU, will take over as the Permanent Secretary.

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