Brexit and the Civil Service, Put Simply

By Blog Writer Sam Rhydderch

Theresa May’s Chief Brexit Advisor, Oliver Robbins, has been accused by Tory MPs of monopolising the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiations and conspiring against Brexiteers in order to achieve a ‘soft-Brexit’ outcome for the United Kingdom and the EU.

Political tensions were heightened on both sides last week after unnamed Conservative MPs launched a series of public attacks on Oliver Robbins, describing the senior Whitehall official as “secretive”, “cliquey” and holding a “Rasputinesque” hold over the Prime Minister herself.

This unusual public attack on the senior civil servant and, by proxy, the British civil service has led to the rare intervention of three former Whitehall cabinet secretaries; Lord Armstrong, Lord Butler, and Lord O’Donnell, along with the cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.

In an open letter to The Times, Mark Sedwill hit back at reports that Robbins is seeking to frustrate Brexit negotiations against the will of the Vote Leave camp, writing; “The anonymous sources […] should be ashamed of themselves” and should stop “sniping”

This latest development comes days after another civil servant – HMRC chief Jon Thompson – received death threats after revealing that a customs arrangement plan backed by Brexiteers regarding an open technological border in Ireland would cost approximately £20bn a year to maintain.

Oliver Robbins is one of the last remaining close advisors to Theresa May, having worked alongside the Prime Minister during her time as home secretary in 2015. Robbins was asked by Theresa May to lead the newly formed Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) in July 2016, which he led until September 2017 before being appointed as the Prime Minister’s Europe Adviser. 

Robbin’s close alliance with Theresa May has troubled many within her party, who think that Robbins is being allowed free-reign during these negotiations. They argue that as an unelected and anonymous civil servant he has no right to dictate the direction of government regarding Brexit – only to follow, advise and implement. Jill Rutter from the Institute of Government says: “He is presumed to have an entire Brexit masterplan in his brain”.

Despite this, it is worth noting that unlike the bulk of the Civil Service, special advisors are not expected to be impartial. They have a foot in both party politics and the Civil Service. This being said, it is arguable that an unelected advisor should not be able to direct policy in such an explicit way.

Previous news articles published by the BBC and The Telegraph have described the senior civil servant as the ‘real Mr Brexit’ or the ‘real’ Brexit secretary, leading many in government to believe that he has usurped the ministerial role of Brexit secretary, pushing out the likes of David Davis – the previous Brexit secretary – and pressuring current secretary Dominic Raab in the process.

Whitehall is facing a problem with the level of public scrutiny it is receiving. Civil servants are known to be secretive by nature; they are the cogs of government, hidden from the public eye and ensuring the smooth operation of government by helping ministers run their respective departments. As public servants they serve the public indirectly through politicians and through government, implementing the government’s agenda with minimal fuss.

The civil service was founded on the basis of being politically impartial and neutral in all aspects of government. The public attack on Oliver Robbins and his political leaning is unlikely to reflect well on the service, which also relies on public trust - something former cabinet secretary Lord Butler is mindful of: “Undermining our civil servants […] is not in the national interest”. It remains to be seen whether the impact of this public spat between Whitehall and Tory Brexiteers will be reflected in future Brexit negotiations.

Sources and Further Reading

Image: Keith Murray @flickr

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