The last day of business before parliament breaks for its summer recess is popularly known in Westminster as “take out the trash day”, which sees government departments dump dozens of written statements in the hope of avoiding negative publicity.
Today it has come round again, and one item of trash has attracted a lot of attention: Theresa May has confirmed a “machinery of government change”, which will see her direct negotiations with the EU, rather than her Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab.
Announcing the change, May wrote:
I will lead the negotiations with the European Union, with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 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. A number of staff will transfer from DExEU to the Cabinet Office to deliver that.
Headlines about the Prime Minister sidelining Raab have inevitably followed but the funny thing is that, to coin a phrase, nothing has changed. That the negotiations are run by Downing Street and specifically Olly Robbins, May’s chief adviser on the EU and the head of the Cabinet Office Europe Unit, is no secret and hasn’t been for a long time. I wrote last month that, despite the bluster of Leavers in the cabinet, Robbins is the only person determining the government’s official Brexit line. Backbench leavers know this only too well.
The supremacy of Downing Street has also been acknowledged explicitly by Raab himself. Asked who called the shots in negotiations in the Commons last week, he used the same formulation as the Prime Minister to acknowledge his position as second fiddle: “It is the Prime Minister and the cabinet. I will be deputising for the Prime Minister in the negotiations.” Today’s change, he said this afternoon, merely amounts to “shuffling the deckchairs” (which, leaving aside the unfortunate imagery, ignores the fact that they have been arranged this way for quite some time).
May says the role of DexEU will be to lead domestic preparations for a deal – or lack thereof – and shepherd legislation through parliament. Insiders say this was always the case, and intention. The outsized personality of David Davis disguised that inconvenient truth somewhat. It is hard to argue with former DexEU minister Steve Baker’s argument that the department is merely a Potemkin structure disgusing Downing Street’s control.
To buy the line that Raab has been somehow demoted is to ignore the fact that Leavers have never been truly in charge of Brexit. And as her deal continues to satisfy next to nobody, that is precisely Theresa May’s problem.