The two men in charge of Britain’s Brexit negotiations are battling each other for staff and resources, in a further sign of instability within the UK team days before the next round of talks with Brussels is due to begin.
Olly Robbins, who left his job as head of the Department for Exiting the EU last month to set up a rival “Europe Unit” in Downing Street, is openly trying to poach his former colleagues from David Davis, the Brexit secretary.
In an email to staff at Dexeu and UkRep, Britain’s diplomatic mission in Brussels, Mr Robbins, 42, described the work of the Europe unit and called for “expressions of interest” to join him.
Observers have questioned what work Dexeu will be left with, after Mr Robbins said his new unit will be in charge of “developing the over-arching substance of, and approach to, the UK’s withdrawal, and the negotiation of our new partnership with the EU”.
The email, which has been seen by the FT, says the Europe unit will have five deputy directors and is looking to recruit staff in four teams covering trade, security, the post-Brexit “implementation period” and the preparation of publications. It is careful to insist that it will be working “in tandem” with Dexeu.
Mr Davis has insisted that Mr Robbins’ move to the heart of Mrs May’s Downing Street operation is not a signal that he and his own department are being sidelined. One of his allies said it was “a total lie” to suggest that Mr Davis believes he has been marginalised in the talks.
The Brexit secretary has told associates he is determined to stop key Dexeu staff moving to Mr Robbins’ operation. Before Mr Robbins’ transfer, Dexeu had lost two ministers and Mr Davis’ chief of staff.
People briefed on Mr Davis’ thinking said he has formed a close alliance with Philip Hammond, the pro-EU chancellor, on the timing and pace of Brexit negotiations and has been able to drive the agenda in cabinet deliberations.
Following a disastrous speech at the Tory party conference this week, Mrs May has faced a rebellion from her own MPs, with some openly calling for her to step down.
On Friday, Mrs May said she had the “full support of her cabinet”, but the effort to topple her has added fresh uncertainty around whether the prime minister can push through any form of Brexit deal agreed with Brussels.
Senior Whitehall officials say that Mrs May’s decision to bring Mr Robbins to Downing Street effectively recreates the Europe and Global Issues Secretariat (Egis), a Downing Street body that led on EU affairs across Whitehall for many years.
“It is better to have Egis back, no matter what you call it,” said one former senior civil servant. “You need to have a central grip on Brexit policy coming from the centre and that has been sorely missed.”
Others believe that Mrs May’s decision to create a Europe Unit, while understandable, now leaves Whitehall with two competing power centres on Brexit and this will only create tension.
“Davis is deeply unhappy that May is marginalising him and these latest moves are a recipe for further strife,” said one. “Moreover, as they now have both a Number 10 operation and Dexeu, Brussels will endlessly chisel away at the gaps between the two, of which there will be plenty.”
Another lamented the confusion that has reigned at the heart of Whitehall. “We had a functioning, serious, tightly co-ordinated system . . . Throwing it away has contributed to the policy shambles we have since seen. Whitehall is not functioning well on Brexit, and other capitals well know it.”
Jill Rutter, of the Institute for Government, said the creation of the Europe unit was a sign of confusion. “We have just spent all this effort attracting people to Dexeu and now you are trying to attract them somewhere else. It creates more instability.”
Dexeu said: “A small team is being established, including from existing staff in Dexeu, to support the work of Oliver Robbins further to his appointment as the PM’s Europe adviser and sherpa.”
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