It was only in David Cameron’s final weeks, during the short lame duck administration that followed his resignation, that work started on the policy to which Britain was now committed.
The government built a Europe Unit inside the Cabinet Office, with staff from the “Europe and Global Issues Secretariat”, known as EGIS, at the heart of it. As it happened, this little body, which had run recent EU negotiations, needed a new leader.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, had asked an experienced Europe hand called Michael Ellam, a former official now working at HSBC, to put himself forward. He agreed – but only if the referendum were won.
After the vote, a new candidate was needed. The job went to a protégé of Heywood’s – Olly Robbins. He had very little experience of the EU, but his role would be to build Brexit.
The interregnum was rapid. May took office about three weeks after the referendum. But that was time enough for her to have made some leadership campaign promises, and on 30 June, just one week after the referendum, she announced a new ministry for leaving the EU.
It would be led, she promised, by “a Member of Parliament who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU”.
One of May’s closest advisers says this was “a message to the party”. She had not been a Leaver and needed to hold her party together. And so, when she took office, the Department for Exiting the European Union or DExEU (pronounced “Dexy-You”) was born by beefing up the Europe Unit.
Robbins became permanent secretary of the new department. David Davis, a former Europe minister who campaigned for Leave, was appointed as secretary of state.
The prime minister also needed to make another big appointment – a so-called “sherpa” for the negotiations. This senior official and adviser would act as her right hand in dealing with the EU, becoming an authorised go-between. The sherpa would be – to use the phrase of Heywood – “Mr Brexit”. Robbins himself wanted to take the role on. May did not want him to.
Robbins was well known to the new prime minister; he had briefly been a senior official at the Home Office – and she respected him. But Robbins had never had a comparable job, never run a negotiation and had little experience of the EU. The prime minister wanted him to run DExEU, not the negotiation. Robbins, however, ended up with both jobs, creating immediate and foreseeable problems – which were noted across Whitehall.
First, the existence of DExEU as an independent department would be a problem. The negotiation could have been run from the Cabinet Office – the prime minister’s department, in effect. It is a specialist central department for co-ordinating action across government.
A former British negotiator told me: “You can’t run a negotiation which involves bringing everyone together, except from a central department. That’s the whole point of the centre.” Robbins, along with the Institute for Government and the permanent secretaries of the Treasury and Foreign Office, all thought that setting up a new department was an error.
Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary of the Foreign Office, said: “You have automatically created this political tension, which will be affecting… who was in charge of this. And it’s obvious, with five minutes thought on an issue like this, the prime minister is going to want to keep her reins in her hand.”
The second problem was permanent secretaries are expected to work in the interests of their secretary of state. In Robbins’s case, that was Davis. But, in the words of one former UK diplomat, the sherpa’s job is “enforcer and adviser, and you have your own views, and you are taking those to the prime minister direct and sometimes the cabinet committee”.
Colleagues recall Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels, warning Heywood about this. One remembers Rogers saying it put Robbins in “an absolute nightmare position” in which he was obliged to advise the prime minister directly, and in doing so cut his own minister out of the game.
The appointment of Davis also contained the seeds of future problems. It was not clear, in the minds of people in Downing Street, what he was actually for.
Nick Timothy, one of the prime minister’s two chiefs of staff, strongly believed Davis should lead the talks. Fiona Hill, May’s other chief of staff, also championed a broad role for him, but the two would remind colleagues: “The UK’s lead negotiator is Theresa.”
How could Davis fit in?
His main purpose, for everyone at the centre, was to be an answer to the question of whether the prime minister was serious about Brexit. Yet when DExEU was asked in December 2016 to draw up details of the UK’s negotiating team for distribution to the press, Davis’s name was omitted from the first draft.
The third problem with Robbins’s dual role was Robbins himself. Former colleagues praise his deep sense of public service and ferocious intellect, but his confidence in those attributes sometimes tipped over into arrogance. He is not considered good at building workplace alliances and was new to serious EU work. I heard the same faint praise about Robbins from a lot of places: “Olly knows a lot about the EU now.”
He arrived with his own coterie of staff, who had a background in the secretive arena of security policy. The same half-dozen names recur through the saga – and few others. There was poor information flow within the department, and out of it.
Extreme secrecy descended on Whitehall. At one meeting between officials at the Department of Health and DExEU, the health officials were not permitted to take a minute, nor retain copies of the agenda, nor the supporting material. The government wanted to “keep its cards close to its chest”, even from itself.
This leaked out into the real world: car makers, a key industry in the Brexit story, found themselves asked to prepare answers to the same technical questions by different departments. Officials in the Treasury, DExEU, Business department and Trade department were not sharing information.
Robbins’s promotion was symptomatic of a bigger problem. The UK negotiation started with a lack of expertise. Experienced European hands gave lists of names of people they would have wanted working on Brexit: notably Sir Jon Cunliffe. A former UK representative to the EU, he was deputy governor to the Bank of England. He remains there now.
There were efforts to bring in experienced officials, or even recruit experts into informal advisory posts – but they were halting. Indeed, a large number of old hands expected to be asked to “do one last job for HM Government”. One turned down private-sector work after the referendum in preparation for being “called from my plough”. The call never came.
Two former officials with significant EU experience said they would have come back to work for Sir Jon, or someone of his age and stature – but not Robbins. As it happens, they were not asked. One said: “There was no sense of ‘getting the band back together’. I certainly didn’t get the call.” One former trade official says: “I assumed somebody else got it and was shocked nobody did.”
Part of this was because May’s team feared that people who went to Brussels tended to go native. They wanted outsiders. A close adviser to May says that this was “a kind of institutional suspicion of the Foreign Office. And it is still kind of true that there is still a kind of institutional resistance to Brexit itself.” This suspicion, in truth, ran wider. Senior officials with knowledge of the EU from other Europe-facing bodies, including the eurosceptic Treasury, were not recalled.
There was an attempt to bring in people at more junior ranks. One senior EGIS official said they found themselves walking up Whitehall on their mobile phone, calling former colleagues: “Hey, we’ve set up this thing called ‘Dex-Ee-Yoo’ – do you want to come join it?”
One negotiator replied to an approach from another DExEU mandarin by WhatsApp. “Would I like to become night watch on the Titanic? Let me go away and think about that.”
In 2017, when the department published a full organogram, it revealed how far the top tiers of the department had been filled with people with little or no recent experience of European policy. The department at the forefront of the most complex piece of statecraft attempted in decades is being run by generalists.
What the department did have was youth. The average age of a DExEU official is 30. Excluding its trainee “fast-streamers”, a third of the department were born since the passing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. Only 6 per cent assert over 50.
David Henig, a former UK trade official, points out: “This also meant they lacked the informal connections upon which Whitehall traditionally runs, and were not encouraged to make them.” Britain had not taken seriously the task of maintaining a corps of officials versed in the EU.
With hindsight the problem was worsened by another decision by May. She created a new piece of government machinery: the Department for International Trade, a ministry to be headed by another Brexiter, Liam Fox. This ministry was intended to show the UK’s commitment to free trade beyond the EU, but officials inside Whitehall regard its creation as a serious mistake; DIT wanted a distant relationship with the EU. If the UK were to agree to a close relationship instead, that would probably reduce Britain’s latitude to cut trade deals – the role Fox’s new department saw itself as existing to implement.
Robbins would need to hold all this together, but the institutions at his disposal were flawed and fragile – and about to be subjected to tremendous pressure.
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