May’s New Brexit Secretary Manages to Stay in the Room
When Dominic Raab, the U.K.’s new Brexit secretary, finished being grilled for more than three hours in Parliament on Tuesday, he went straight into a meeting with his boss, the prime minister.
That might seem unexceptional, but it indicates a change from his predecessor’s tense relationship with Theresa May and is a clear sign that she has made peace with the most problematic of her ministries. It’s also likely to be good news for the U.K.’s chances of getting a Brexit deal.
To understand why, look at the back story. Raab was appointed July 9 after his predecessor, David Davis, finally followed through on repeated threats to quit. Davis was unhappy with May’s blueprint for a soft Brexit -- and the way that she cut him out of key decisions. The premier preferred to take the counsel of her chief Europe adviser, backroom aide Oliver Robbins.
Davis’s resignation provoked a week of turmoil, in which other ministers and aides quit May’s team with warnings that she’s betraying their vision of a clean split from the EU. But the crisis gave May the opportunity to assert her authority over the Brexit Department.
Appointing Raab, May decided that the negotiation strategy will no longer be split between the Brexit Department and Robbins’s team in her office. The prime minister told Parliament on Tuesday that she -- and Robbins -- will be running the show from now until exit day on March 29 next year.
While he rarely speaks in public, Robbins is now more powerful than ever behind the scenes. “I will lead the negotiations with the European Union, with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union deputizing on my behalf,” May said. The Cabinet Office’s Europe unit, which Robbins runs, “will have overall responsibility for the preparation and conduct of the negotiations,” she said.
From the EU’s perspective, the end of the power struggle between Robbins and the Brexit Department will be welcome. For the past year, European negotiators have agreed policies with Robbins and his team of officials only to find Davis overruling them later.
What’s the payback for Raab? At least now he is inside the room, seeing all the key advice, and contributing to the discussions that May has with Robbins. Davis was regularly left out of the debate and kept in the dark about key decisions. Being sidelined in this way added to his frustration and ultimately contributed to his decision to quit.
But there is a risk in May’s approach. Raab, like Davis, campaigned to leave the EU during the 2016 referendum. May was on the other side.
In reducing her Brexit secretary’s influence, May has opened herself to the charge that the U.K.’s withdrawal is now being negotiated by people who wanted to stay in the bloc. Even now, the premier can’t say whether she’d vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held again.
Robbins has been given the credit -- and blamed by euroskeptics -- for steering May toward her soft Brexit position. The consolidation of his influence saw sterling climb 0.3 percent Tuesday, but angered Brexit campaigners in the ruling Tory party.
Ultimately, while Robbins could help her to get a deal with the EU, the prime minister needs hardline euroskeptic Tories on her side if she’s going to persuade Parliament to vote for it.
And if May’s pro-Brexit colleagues are feeling angry and betrayed, they could topple her before she gets the chance to try.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.