Theresa May has denied the UK’s Brexit approach has been a shambles after the Whitehall official leading Britain’s negotiating team was moved into a role as the Prime Minister’s EU adviser.
Oliver Robbins has been shifted from Brexit Secretary David Davis’s department to the advisory position in the Cabinet Office, but will “continue to lead the official-side UK team” in negotiations.
The move may be seen as an attempt by the PM to take a more prominent role in shaping the talks, before her major Brexit speech on Friday in Florence, Italy.
But it follows reports of personal differences between Mr Robbins and Mr Davis over the negotiations in Brussels.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer questioned the wisdom of moving key individuals at a critical time in the process and claimed it “adds a whole new dimension to government’s chaotic approach to Brexit”, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable labelled the change as a “sign of the chaos and division” within the minority administration.
Speaking during a trade visit to Canada, Mrs May was asked by a reporter if the change showed the Brexit negotiating structure had been a “bit of a shambles”.
The PM replied: “No, not at all. What it is a sign of is that the negotiations are getting into a more detailed and more intense phase.
“As a result of that I think it’s right that Olly Robbins concentrates on that and obviously a different structure will be put in place in terms of the running of the management of the Department for Exiting the European Union and the permanent secretaryship there.”
Former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said he was surprised by the move.
“It seems an odd point to make this kind of change,” he said.
“I wonder how he can lead a process of negotiation and not also be leading the department responsible for that process.”
The crossbench peer told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “I don’t know exactly what’s driving this move.
“It could be, as has been put out from Number 10, a simple case of the Prime Minister wanting more controlling influence over the process, it could be down to a clash of personalities.”
Philip Rycroft has been appointed as Mr Robbins’ replacement as permanent secretary at Mr Davis’s Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).
Mr Robbins worked closely with Mrs May as second permanent secretary at the Home Office for a year during her tenure as home secretary.
Sources said he had been brought in to help set up DExEU and it now made sense for him to “focus solely on negotiations” rather than running the department.
A government spokesman said: “In order to strengthen cross-government co-ordination of the next phase of negotiations with the European Union, the Prime Minister has appointed Oliver Robbins as her EU adviser in the Cabinet Office, in addition to his role as EU sherpa.
“He will continue to lead the official-side UK team in the negotiations, working closely with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and co-ordinate relations with the (European) Commission and member states.”
Mr Robbins’ departure from DExEU is the latest personnel change at the department, following the sacking of David Jones and the resignation of Lord Bridges from ministerial roles following the election.