For months it has been claimed that Theresa May has been sidelining her Brexit department in talks with the EU. Now, the Prime Minister has confirmed that is exactly what she is doing. In a dull sounding written statement on the ‘machinery of government’ put out just hours before MPs head off on their summer holidays, the PM said that to ensure things are ‘organised in the most effective way’ as the countdown to Brexit gets closer, she will now ‘lead the negotiations with the European Union’; Dominic Raab, the PM said, will be ‘deputising’ on her behalf.
For Brexiteers, this news will go down badly. The Chequers paper – seen as too soft by some Tory MPs and Leave supporters – was the work of the Cabinet Office’s Europe Unit, led by Olly Robbins. So how has Robbins been rewarded for his Brexit plan trumping the rival blueprint put together by DExEU? According to the PM’s statement today, Robbins’ team will now ‘have overall responsibility for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations’. While the PM insists that ‘DExEU will continue to lead on all of the Government’s preparations for Brexit’, one thing is clear: the Brexit department – led by Dominic Raab – is being downgraded.
In the Brexit select committee, Raab – somewhat awkwardly appearing alongside a smiling Robbins – claimed that this was not the case. When he was confronted by John Whittingdale, he said that:
DR: What we’ve done is to try and make clear, given some of the tensions that you understandably refer to, and given the mixed functions that both the Cabinet Office Europe team and Dexeu were performing, that both as a matter of the official level of advice we get, there is one team. That in terms of the ministerial chain of command, there is one team...and that is the way we get the best deal.
That response, though, didn’t please Whittingdale – and neither is it likely to placate some of his colleagues on the Tory backbenches. Whittingdale responded by saying:
JW: But the PM’s statement makes clear that overall responsibility now rests with the Europe Unit of the Cabinet Office. Is it not extraordinary that you run the Department for Exiting the European Union, and yet you do not have overall responsibility of negotiations?
DR: The Prime Minister has the overall ministerial responsibility, and I deputise for her, so I am the number two.
Whatever Raab might say here, May’s statement marks a big reversal from the original plan when the Brexit department was first set up. In the tussle for power, the Cabinet Office has won.
Yet this change doesn't mean that Raab’s job is any less crucial. In effect, he is now effectively the 'minister for no deal'. The PM said that preparations for life after Brexit – whether in the event of a deal or otherwise – still rests with Raab. Given that it's still not clear that enough MPs back May's Brexit plan to get it past the final vote, there's plenty for him to be getting on with on the 'no deal' side.