By Richard Tice and John Longworth
In the last few weeks we have witnessed a prince of the civil service, the prime minister’s chief adviser on Brexit, Olly Robbins, changing crucial government policy, with embarrassing and damaging consequences. This is a man who has been allowed to usurp David Davis, the elected secretary of state, as chief Brexit negotiator.
Robbins is a shadowy figure in the corridors of power. A real, live, modern-day Sir Humphrey — and someone who certainly subscribes to the ancient but false dictum that “the man in Whitehall knows best”.
Robbins is understood to have persuaded the PM to embrace the shape of the Florence speech last autumn, which gave ground to Brussels without asking for anything in return. In December, he then persuaded Theresa May to give away our negotiating position on Northern Ireland by adopting membership of the customs union as a fall-back position, and confirmed our payment of at least £39bn of British taxpayers’ money to the EU.
At each stage, Robbins has presided over a bungled negotiating position on behalf of the UK, giving leverage to the EU and acquiescing to its every whim in a way no business-person would ever do in a negotiation. It was obvious back then that the EU would revert straight away to our default position on Northern Ireland — and, guess what, that is exactly what they have done.
But we should not be too surprised that this mandarin is not exactly the most fervent defender of British interests. Back in the 1990s, when young Olly (he has just turned 43) was a student at Hertford College, Oxford, he was a great defender of the recently defunct Soviet Union, saying that communism only failed because the “experiment” was not conducted in fair conditions. His admiration for centralised superstates was evident at an early age.
In the same vein, he was president of the Oxford Reform Club, set up to oppose the Eurosceptic movement at the university, whose logo was a parliamentary portcullis shrouded by the yellow stars of the EU.
Robbins’ latest debacle involves the so-called “new customs partnership”. Leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg has panned Olly’s grand scheme as “completely cretinous… impractical”, and designed to keep us in the single market. It even appears to have been rejected by the EU.
This complex proposal means that doing trade deals around the world would be practically impossible. It would make the removal of tariffs — a measure that would significantly reduce the cost of living for people in the UK — a non-starter. Finally, the ability to deregulate from daft EU regulations would be reduced. So bad is the proposal, that even his Whitehall patron, Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, is rumoured not to support it. Behind the scenes, David Davis is locked in a bitter power struggle with Robbins over who runs the Brexit talks.
There have been reports that the ultimate objective of this unworkable solution is to force the UK into the customs union, an objective also shared by Brussels and the fifth column of noisy and self-righteous Remainers in parliament — indeed, all those who wish to frustrate Brexit.
Whatever the motive, as far as the British negotiating position is concerned, this is another in the catalogue of Olly Robbins’ blunders.
His actions make life so much harder for an embattled prime minister. A big let-down for both her and the country, it is time that Robbins is replaced by someone from outside the civil service; someone who will take a tough line with Brussels. Among a strong list of possible replacements, there are experts in this field already in government: for example the professional trade negotiator Crawford Falconer, who is currently holed up in Liam Fox’s international trade department.
We must have a true believer in Brexit facing the EU in these vital talks. Robbins has tried and failed. It is time for him to go.
Richard Tice and John Longworth are co-chairmen of Leave Means Leave
April 29th, 2018: The Times