This morning Oliver Robbins was moved from Permanent Secretary at the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) to become EU Adviser to Theresa May, based in the Cabinet Office. This afternoon it was announced that DExEU’s Director of Trade and Partnerships Antony Phillipson is departing for New York. At a lower level the official dealing with the Brexit dossier at the British Embassy in Berlin, Philippa Saunders, is leaving at short notice to join May’s team in Downing Street as Assistant Private Secretary.
What’s going on?
It seems that Theresa May has decided to take more of the responsibility for Brexit into her own hands. Politico had an intriguing piece earlier this month about tensions between Robbins and David Davis at DExEU, and it seems May has acted in light of that.
There are at least four problems I see with this.
Firstly, as Steve Bullock elegantly lays out in this Twitter thread, these moves might manage to make lines of administrative responsibility even more complex than they are just now.
Secondly, where does this leave David Davis, in a department suddenly shorn of its Permanent Secretary (although his deputy Philip Rycroft has already been announced as the replacement for Robbins)?
Third, all of this is rather akin to a failing football team changing its management structure half way through a failing campaign (thanks Borja García!), while the problem actually is beyond what they can fix. While the government is still negotiating with itself (as Carl Bildt so icily pointed out), it is hard to see how rearrangements to the civil service structures can help that much. David Allen Green has however long pointed to the administrative malfunction brought about with the creation of DExEU – perhaps now David’s wish to see Brexit fall under the remit of an established department be granted?
Fourth, vesting more power in staff directly responsible to the Prime Minister might sound sensible, but as John Rentoul rightly pointed out last year, May is indecisive, obsessive and slow. That is hardly a recipe for improving how the negotiations are going to go.
There could of course be more major personnel changes to come – at cabinet level. Boris Johnson, so roundly criticised for his weekend piece in The Telegraph has been letting is concerns about the negotiations leak out to The Sun tonight (warning: sidebar of shame on linked page), and his political future has been called into question. If May were bold she would sack him, move Davis to be Foreign Minister (where his easy charm and lack of attention to detail would cause less problems than at DExEU), and appoint a more workmanlike character as Brexit Minister – someone like Robin Walker (currently Parliamentary Under Secretary at DExEU). The danger of course is with her own position so precarious, such a decision might lead to mutiny so widespread among the Tory Party faithful at the party’s conference due in a fortnight that May’s own future would once more be in danger.
With May’s Florence speech due on Friday we will know soon enough how all of this will pan out. More about that speech, and what May can and cannot say here.
[UPDATE 19.9.17, 0025]
Matt Ross has written a post for Global Government Forum analysing these dynamics, and drawing slightly more positive conclusions than I do! His piece is worth a read.
[UPDATE 19.9.17, 1430]
Boris now is apparently threatening to resign as Foreign Minister if May is to commit to something akin to Switzerland’s relationship with the EU. So what does she do? Prevaricate and keep him in? Or be concrete and get rid of him? Presumably he does stick to his word (not a foregone conclusion!)