Theresa May poaches top DexEU civil servant ahead of big Brexit speech


Robbins (second on the right) has moved to Number 10 after reportedly clashing with David Davis (Source: Getty)

A senior civil servant at the heart of Brexit negotiations is moving to a new role at Number 10, amid rumours that he had clashed with David Davis over the direction of talks. 

Oliver Robbins is taking up a new role as EU adviser in the cabinet office. Although he will continue to lead the "official-side UK team" in the Brussels negotiations, he will step down from his current role as permanent secretary for DexEU. 

That position is being taken up by his number two, Philip Rycroft. 

Read more: Stand-off over Brexit divorce bill to last "the duration" of talks

The move means that Robbins will now will report directly to Downing Street while simultaneously leading the UK’s team of officials during talks with the bloc.

It comes just days before May is due to give a hotly anticipated speech in Florence to the leaders of the EU27, speaking above the heads of David Davis and Michel Barnier in an intervention which is hoped will break the impasse in talks that has so far prevented either side from starting to discuss trade.

Read more: Pressure piles on PM to make "deal friendly" Brexit speech to EU27

An official spokesperson said the move came about "in order to strengthen cross government co-ordination of the next phase of negotiations with the European Union". 

The Evening Standard reports that Robbins had quit after less than a year after growing divisions on Brexit.

Those divisions have been lain bare by foreign secretary Boris Johnson's letter in The Telegraph at the weekend, which cabinet members including home secretary Amber Rudd have criticised.

Johnson and Leave co-campaigner (turned Brutas) Michael Gove have reportedly reunited over their desire to see a post-Brexit deal with the EU along the lines of the Canadian treaty that is about to come into force. They are up against Robbins, and other pro-Remain ministers such as chancellor Philip Hammond who are pushing for something more akin to the EEA model.

Robbins' move was welcomed by cabinet secretary and head of the civil service Jeremy Heywood, who is also said to back the EEA model. 

But critics of the government seized on it as proof of chaos behind the scenes. 

Labour MP and Open Britain supporter Stephen Doughty said: “Boris Johnson may be back-seat driving, but the car is now in danger of spinning wildly out of control.

“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.”

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable added: "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."