PM May reshuffling Brexit team for next phase of talks

Move to 'strengthen cross-govt coordination' branded as chaos by main opposition parties

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May is reshuffling her team of top Brexit negotiators in preparation for talks entering a new phase.

Mr Oliver Robbins, the top official at the Brexit ministry, quit yesterday to start working directly for Mrs May, in what opposition parties branded as "chaos" at a sensitive time in the negotiations.

Mr Robbins - who was the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union - will now be Mrs May's EU adviser, the ministry said in a statement.

It said the move would "strengthen cross-government coordination of the next phase of negotiations" in Brussels, which is due to start next week. Mr Robbins will continue to focus on his leading role in the negotiations with Brussels, which have stalled in recent weeks as the two sides argue over the divorce settlement.

A source at the ministry told AFP that it was a "planned move" and denied a report in the London Evening Standard newspaper that there had been a falling out between Mr Robbins and Brexit Secretary David Davis.

However, Mr Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, said: "Moving key individuals at this critical time adds a whole new dimension to the government's chaotic approach to Brexit.

"Deep divisions in the Cabinet and a complete lack of leadership are putting the national interest at risk," he added.

Mr Vince Cable, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said: "This is a sign of the chaos and division at the heart of this government".

An official quoted in the Evening Standard said: "Olly (Mr Robbins) has always worried the Brexiteers as to where he is. There were comments going around that he was trying to slow things down."

Mr Philip Rycroft will replace Mr Robbins as permanent secretary - the most senior civil service post - in the Department for Exiting the EU. 

Mrs May is hoping to use a major speech in Florence on Friday to break the deadlock, amid speculation that she will offer to continue paying into the EU budget during a transitional phase after Britain formally leaves the EU.

Both sides had hoped to move on to discussing the future trading arrangement between Britain and the EU in October, but this will depend on making sufficient progress on the exit terms first.

Meanwhile, a Reuters survey of firms employing the bulk of workers in international finance said some 10,000 finance jobs are expected to be shifted out of Britain or created overseas in the next few years if Britain is denied access to Europe's single market.

Frankfurt was by far the most popular destination for the new roles, the survey shows, with Paris a distant second.

The results from 123 companies came from the first comprehensive public survey to ask the biggest banks, insurers, asset managers, private equity firms and exchanges in Britain about the specific details of their plans so far in case of a so-called "hard" Brexit.

Nearly half of the companies surveyed told Reuters they would have to move staff or restructure their businesses because of Brexit, which is due to take place in March 2019. The survey also suggests some financial institutions may be delaying decisions to move, hoping a "soft" Brexit can be negotiated in ongoing talks in Brussels.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'PM May reshuffling Brexit team for next phase of talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe