Theresa May’s top Europe adviser faced claims of a “coup d’etat” after the prime minister announced the Brexit department will no longer be responsible for negotiating the country’s EU divorce.
Olly Robbins, who leads a team of civil servants within the Cabinet Office, has seen his “Europe unit” given overall responsibility for negotiations with Brussels.
Mrs May’s shake-up of Whitehall prompted claims of a demotion for new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab little more than two weeks into the job.
It could also inflame tensions with Conservative Brexiteers, who eye Mr Robbins with suspicion and accuse him of being behind the prime minister’s unpopular Chequers plan for leaving the EU.
Confirming the changes in a written statement to the House of Commons, Mrs May said: “I will lead the negotiations with the EU, with the secretary of state for exiting the EU deputising on my behalf.
“Both of us will be supported by the Cabinet Office Europe unit and with this in mind the Europe unit will have overall responsibility for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations, drawing upon support from DExEU and other departments as required.”
The prime minister added Mr Raab’s DExEU officials will now solely focus on Brexit preparations, including those for a “no deal” outcome.
News of Mrs May’s statement was delivered as both Mr Raab and Mr Robbins gave evidence to the House of Commons Brexit committee on Tuesday.
The pair presented a united front, with Mr Raab insisting there was “no tension” between him and Mr Robbins despite “some shifting of the Whitehall deckchairs”.
The Brexit secretary revealed he was made aware of the shake-up in a conversation with Mrs May when he took on the role, as he stressed his department had not been “downgraded” and there was “one team” handling Brexit.
Mr Robbins denied claims he had written a Brexit plan in “secret” ahead of a Chequers awayday for cabinet ministers, at which they agreed on the prime minister’s proposals.
“There was never a second secret white paper,” he said.
Ex-Brexit secretary David Davis, who resigned in protest at the Chequers plan and was said to have a turbulent relationship with Mr Robbins, has claimed his former department was working on alternative proposals but they were never presented to ministers.
Mr Robbins also rejected suggestions he and Mrs May had tried to “circumvent” Mr Davis and DExEU ahead of the Chequers meeting, or that the UK’s Brexit proposals had been cleared with other EU leaders before they were presented to parliament.
Mr Raab told the committee he could not answer questions on what took place before he moved to DExEU, including claims by the former chief of staff to Mr Davis, who has said there are “serious questions about the constitutional propriety of having an unelected unit” in Downing Street making Brexit policy.
Tory Brexiteer Craig Mackinlay, a member of the committee, suggested a “coup d’etat” had quietly been going on within Whitehall over the last few months.
Mr Raab backs the Chequers plan, although he admitted concessions on it could yet be made to the EU as part of the negotiating process.
The Brexit secretary told MPs he could not give a “precise moment” at which it might be clear the UK is leaving the EU without a deal, while he addressed claims there are plans to stockpile food in such a scenario.
“It would be wrong to describe it as the government doing stockpiling,” he said.
“What we will make sure – and of course the idea that we only get food imports into this country from one continent is not appropriate – but we will look at this issue in the round and make sure that there is adequate food supply.”
One of Mr Raab’s answers was greeted with laughter when he mistakenly told MPs the government “will do nothing that will draw a customs border down the Red Sea”.
Despite correcting himself to say the “Irish Sea”, Mr Raab failed to give a similar guarantee that there would be no “regulatory border” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK after Brexit.
Having earlier presented a white paper to the House of Commons on the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, Mr Raab told the committee he was “open to suggestions” on how to make Britain’s obligations in a divorce deal conditional on a future trade deal with Brussels.
Responding to Mrs May’s shake-up of Whitehall’s handling of Brexit negotiations, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman said: “Dominic Raab has been sidelined by the prime minister before he has even had the chance to get his feet under the table.”