What explains the "Brexodus" from DExEU?

Opinion piece (Prospect)
Beth Oppenheim
31 October 2017

The Department for Exiting the European Union has slowly haemorrhaged civil servants ever since its inception last year. A freedom of information request by Bloomberg revealed that 142 employees have already left the department. DExEU faced a destabilising spate of resignations shortly before Brexit negotiations began in June, which saw the departures of: Lord Bridges, previously Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, David Davis’s Chief of Staff James Chapman, the Director of Trade and Partnerships Antony Phillipson, and Minister of State and hard Brexiter, David Jones.

Last week, Baroness Anelay resigned, citing the worsening of an injury sustained in 2015. Perhaps this latest resignation could not be helped, but the overall trend cannot be ignored. So what explains the exodus?

Bridges and Chapman left the department because they became convinced that Brexit could not work; and the difficulty in retaining civil servants is not altogether surprising, since most policy specialists recognise that Brexit will make Britain poorer and less influential.

But Theresa May shares some of the blame: she decided in September to move Oliver Robbins, the department’s top civil servant, to a new EU unit in the Cabinet Office which operates from inside Number 10. Twenty civil servants are expected to follow.

To have such a key official rebuilding the Number 10 unit has created competing structures, and suggests that Davis’s influence is waning. For his part, Davis has tried to reassert his authority. In a recent Select Committee hearing, he commented: “when we are out doing the tactical stuff in Brussels, he [Robbins] effectively reports to me.” He also said that the move was at his request, citing the increased size of the department: “Yes, it was my request. No, I thought the organisation needed to be divided.” Indeed, Robbins managed two jobs simultaneously, as both Permanent Secretary of DexEU and the prime minister’s “sherpa,” or emissary, representing May at EU summits.

This formal shift in power towards Number 10 illustrates the political sensitivity of the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May drew her red lines in her party conference speech in 2016 and in the Lancaster House speech in January this year. But it is becoming increasingly clear that maintaining these red lines—an end to freedom of movement, to European Court of Justice jurisdiction, and big payments to the EU budget—will come at a high cost to the British economy. Many speculated that May gave Davis DExEU in order to put a Brexiter in charge of the process, just as she did with Liam Fox at the Department of International Trade.

But with the clock ticking on the Article 50 negotiations, May is realising that decisions must be made, and that she must make them. After all, it is her premiership that will be defined by Brexit.

Although the shift to Number 10 is not huge (Robbins already worked for May and will oversee a small team of civil servants), May faces some risks if she is perceived to marginalise Davis. Davis is the only leave-voting minister involved in the innermost decision making on Brexit in government. The prime minister is reliant upon Davis to sell her policy to the hard-liners in the Conservative Party. If he feels excluded, May risks losing his support, and thus her salesperson. Without Davis placating them, the hard Brexiters may be unshackled, and May’s position could be under threat.

The PM can procrastinate no longer, and must take very difficult decisions in the next two months if the EU is going to agree to move on from the divorce talks to the future relationship. She must keep Davis onside while taking back control. Will she manage it?

Beth Oppenheim is a research assistant at the Centre for European Reform.