The idiomatic phrase ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ presumably is well known to Dominic Raab. It therefore was unwise of the new Secretary of State to tell the Exiting the EU Committee that there had been some ‘shifting of Whitehall deckchairs’, thereby granting Remainers the chance to add their own smug punchline.
Raab’s testimony to the committee also alluded, seemingly without irony, to ‘getting the best from our brilliant civil servants’ – an unwarranted commendation for a group which longs to thwart Brexit, perhaps uttered by Raab only because he was seated alongside head honcho Olly Robbins.
Raab was responding to his DExEU department having earlier that day, Tuesday, formally been downgraded. In a written statement described as a Machinery of Government Change, Theresa May confirmed that she, alas, is to ‘lead the negotiations with the European Union’ while the Secretary of State will ‘deputise’; furthermore, the Cabinet Office Europe Unit, headed by Robbins, now ‘will have overall responsibility for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations’.
Of course, the White Paper which emerged from the now infamous gathering at Chequers on July 6, plus the subsequent resignations of David Davis and Steve Baker from DExEU, had revealed this already to be the case – albeit the arrangement had been adopted without Davis and Baker first being informed. May’s official announcement prompted select committee member John Whittingdale caustically to suggest: ‘The two of you should swap places, because you [Robbins] are in fact Secretary of State and you are being supported by your official [Raab] sitting next to you.’ It was a barb which tickled unelected Olly considerably more than Raab.
Whittingdale was one of several Brexiteers on the committee who attempted to pin down Olly Robbins on the sequence of events which led former minister Steve Baker to conclude that DExEU had become a ‘Potemkin structure’.
Ex-DEXEU minister, Steve Baker launches a scathing attack on the Government, revealing how the Brexit department was a "Potemkin" structure with the real strings being pulled by the Cabinet Office Europe Unit – run by Remainer Olly Robbins – who wanted a fake Brexit all along. pic.twitter.com/ssrKKBdQRu
— Leave.EU (@LeaveEUOfficial) July 15, 2018
Near the end of a session which lasted over two hours, Jacob Rees-Mogg alluded to an earlier question which Robbins had ‘very silkily, and in a very Sir Humphrey-like fashion, managed not to answer’. However, any number of Robbins’s responses might have been described as adroit evasion, for example:
Whittingdale: ‘Complaints from DExEU – the secretary of state and ministers – that [plans] were sprung upon them without any opportunity to influence the proposals that were put to Chequers is completely wrong – is that correct?’
Whittingdale: ‘You’re saying that the then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU was fully familiar with the proposals which were put to the cabinet at Chequers?’
Olly Robbins gave a masterclass in polished obfuscation. His unruffled circumlocution might even deserve grudging admiration – except that it included sophistry such as his disputing that the Chequers agreement was a ‘significant departure’, insisting that it had instead been ‘an evolution of the position set out [by the PM] at Mansion House, but consistent with it’. Not only did this speciously deny what patently had become a handbrake-turn away from the negotiating positions previously outlined by Theresa May and affirmed in the Conservatives’ election manifesto, but in effect Robbins was defending subversion of the democratic vote to break decisively from the EU.
Skulduggery was also on the mind of committee member Craig Mackinlay: ‘I feel that over that last few months I’ve been misled . . . somewhere there is a coup d’état going on . . . we’ve had the previous secretary of state here outlining the progress he was making towards a White Paper we expected and that sounded broadly sensible . . . but somehow, quietly, that was ripped up. When was that ripped up, and who authorised it?’
At first Robbins barely suppressed his condescension: ‘Mr Mackinlay, I honestly don’t recognise the picture you are painting.’
Then to conclude his periphrasis, Ollyaginous presented himself as Theresa May’s humble servant: ‘It is my job only to support [the prime minister] in steering the committee to the right analysis of the situation we are in . . . and to make sure that ministers have the best possible information to make those decisions.’
Support the prime minister . . . steer elected politicians towards the right analysis . . . provide ministers with selected information for decision-making – how innocuous he made it sound. But behind the euphemistic verbiage has been orchestrated a duplicitous campaign to sabotage a meaningful Brexit.
Olly Robbins was of course describing his role as it should be, rather than the dominant position it appears to have become. Jacob Rees-Mogg ended his short interrogation with the sorrowful conclusion: ‘It is worrying . . . that things were going on that the department meant to be in charge were unaware of.’ However, Mogg subtly pointed the finger elsewhere: ‘I attribute no blame to you at all because you are answerable to the Prime Minister.’
Which, as the government now seeks to negotiate with the EU what Gisela Stuart has described as a ‘phantom Brexit’, identifies the true culprit: Theresa May, she having become Olly Robbins’s doormat.