Having been in his current job for just over 7 months, Civil Servant Olly Robbins now holds a woefully indefensible track-record on all things Brexit. Acting as Theresa May’s ‘Europe advisor’, his role is defined plainly by the Cabinet Office as working “with other departments to advocate and deliver the Government’s position with European partners”. On top of this, he is to “give the Prime Minister the best possible advice” on her stated policy aims. As a Civil Servant, this assistance must be impartial, and not at odds with the Clean Brexit voted for by 17.4 million Britons.
A clear enough task, but one Robbins has consistently proven himself incapable of fulfilling.
For there is now an evident and palpable, disconnect between the red lines set out by Theresa May, and the advice she is being given by her chief Brexit adviser. Whereas the Prime Minister has outlined her intentions in a series of speeches – although perhaps not her desire as a Remainer – to take Britain out of the EU, its Single Market, and the Customs Union, Robbins has been pushing his case for the exact opposite. What is most worrying about this is his influence on policy is becoming increasingly visible.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the recent furore over a suggested ‘customs partnership’ with the EU after the Transition Period. A farcical suggestion, riddled with nightmarish bureaucracy, which is not only unfeasible, but would also greatly limit Britain’s future trading opportunities. Such is the impracticality of the concept, is has been summarily dismissed as a non-starter by both Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Emphatically deemed as “unworkable” by Brussels, this idea has acted as an unnecessary distraction from the Brexit trade negotiations. The public debate earlier this year saw the Government recommit to Leaving the Customs Union, a decision which seemed to have settled the matter once and for all. However, by pushing for this hare-brained idea and having dangled it into the public domain, Robbins has actively undermined the Government’s own stated red lines, elevating his own profile at the expense of Brexit Secretary, David Davis. This, coupled with an emboldened House of Lords, and a Labour Party now rejecting its internationalist pretences, has reopened the discussion on an issue which appeared to have been set in stone.
This is not the first time Theresa May has been known to “drift” away from her stated policy because of advice given by Robbins. Following the Brexit war Cabinet’s Chequers meeting at the end of February, the position on Britain’s future regulatory regime appeared settled – “divergence has won” claimed one Brexiteer. Yet, just a few weeks later and the notion of Britain tethering itself to EU rules through “convergence” was once again a worryingly likely prospect. This was accredited to the tinkering of Robbins, who disagreed with the Chequers outcome and was accused by a Cabinet source of manipulating the Prime Minister into supporting his own stance, rather than the one supported by elected politicians.
Given trade talks are already underway, we cannot afford to have the UK’s position stuck in a state of flux. The red lines must be unmovable, not just because they have the support of the majority of Britons, and provide the stability needed for business, but because negotiations cannot be successful if the Government keeps changing its stated aims. However, as long as Robbins maintains the Prime Minister’s ear in this way – this will not happen.
When one explores the ideology of Robbins, the fact he is playing such a role in the Brexit Government at all is astounding. As a fervent integrationist, who spent his time at University combating Eurosceptic opinion and advocating European federalism, his views could not be further from those of the Great British Public. Serious questions must be raised as to whether someone with such strongly held beliefs, is capable of enacting policy which undermines his Europhilic own principles.
The fact David Davis has been seemingly usurped as the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator by Robbins is something which should worry all Brexiteers. A situation has developed whereby Davis, the elected politician, is no longer seen in Brussels as the head of the British negotiating team. Instead it is Robbins who has become the ‘go-to’ guy for Eurocrats – this is a role which he clearly relishes and has provided him with greater leeway to formulate policy off his own back. The relationship he has developed with Michel Barnier’s number 2, Sabine Weyand, is an invaluable channel of communication for an individual who clearly seeks to undermine Davis at every turn.
By keeping Olly Robbins on as her adviser, Theresa May has created a situation whereby he is able to pollute Brexit at every juncture – acting as an unceasing voice of opposition to Britain’s departure.
It is not just his ideology which is troubling, however, but his actual competence as a Civil Servant. Whether it be the “three baskets” idea – which would see many British sectors Remain under the jurisdiction of EU rules – or the ‘customs partnership’, the proposals he has so far put forward have been both impractical and politically unsustainable. They stand in stark contrast to the will of the people, they have been rejected by countless Cabinet Ministers, derided by MPs, and seen as fanciful thinking by Eurocrats. In essence, Olly Robbins is clearly an adviser who is unable to advise.
The majority of the population want the Government to Get Britain Out of the EU, it is unacceptable for this mandate to be undermined by a Europhilic individual who puts his own personal interests above those of the country.
Robert Bates is a Research Executive at grassroots, cross-party campaign Get Britain Out