QUENTIN LETTS watches on as May’s fixer gives evidence alongside Raab
Robbins bit his lip and flashed a pair of dimples: QUENTIN LETTS watches on as May’s increasingly powerful fixer gives evidence alongside Dominic Raab – as he is interrupted by news of his own demotion
Coups d’etat used to be conducted by Latin-American generalissimos with dark glasses and scrambled egg – huevos revueltos – on their army tunics.
In Britain the Establishment has little taste for gold braid.
Are our anti-democratic outrages carried out by murmuring mandarins working to the Cabinet-bypassing diktats of a dishonest prime minister?
First the Iraq War. Now the Chequers ‘betrayal’ of Brexit?
Whitehall’s most controversial fixer, Oliver Robbins, came to Westminster for a taste of parliamentary scrutiny. Mr Robbins runs Theresa May’s Europe unit at 10 Downing Street.
Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and Olly Robbins who runs Theresa May’s Europe policy unit at number 10 Downing Street
He has been given powers that arguably usurp those of HM Secretary of State for Brexit.
Mr Robbins is the man whose soft-Brexit papers were sprung on the Cabinet at Chequers.
Eurosceptic MPs have long been itching to interrogate him but were told he was unavailable.
Finally it was agreed he could go before Hilary Benn’s pro-Remain select committee on Brexit. Yesterday he did so. Last afternoon of term. Convenient.
Physically, Mr Robbins is a commanding presence: tall, bull-necked, strong hair, wide shoulders.
He wore a smart suit, his black shoes dazzlingly polished. He sat alongside Dominic Raab, new Brexit Secretary (predecessor David Davis having quit at Mr Robbins’s interferences).
Anyone judging Raab and Robbins simply on looks might have presumed that the latter was the politician, for he bore himself with the greater pomp. Mr Raab? A foot shorter, with the darting, stressy look of a clerk.
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A vein throbs on the right of his brow and he is prone to flushing in the face.
When they spoke, the balance changed. Raab was husky, lawyerly enough to see off nitpickers (eg. matinee favourite Joanna Cherry of the SNP), at other moments quite impressively brusque with low-grade pointscorers (eg. Labour’s Stephen Kinnock).
By contrast Mr Robbins’s voice was as soft as margarine. He was deferential. He bit on the lower lip, did lots of nodding and flashed a pair of dimples, working rising inflections into his tone. Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood and his stand-in Sir Mark Sedwill, along with civil service chief executive John Manzoni, speak in almost an identical way.
John Whittingdale (Con, Maldon) claimed that ‘most ministers knew nothing’ of the soft-Brexit plan pulled out of the Chequers hat.
Mr Robbins, meekly: ‘I don’t think so.’ He claimed Mrs May’s ‘engagement with colleagues was constant’. Constant but deceptive, perhaps.
Mr Whittingdale said it looked as if Mrs May had tried to ‘circumvent’ her Cabinet.
Mr Robbins, who began most of his answers with ‘so’, said ‘it’s certainly not a picture I or the Prime Minister would recognise’.
Theresa May’s head of the Europe unit at number 10 Downing Street Olly Robbins was undergoing a spot of parliamentary scrutiny today. He has been given powers that arguably usurp those of HM Secretary of State for Brexit, Dominic Raab
Mr Robbins’s enhanced powers were confirmed in a parliamentary written answer published a few minutes before yesterday’s committee hearing.
It confirmed a ‘change of government machinery’ which all but emasculates the Brexit department.
Craig Mackinlay (Con, S Thanet) said: ‘I feel a coup d’etat has been going on.’ Mr Robbins: ‘So, Mr Mackinlay, I honestly don’t recognise the picture.’
Jacob Rees-Mogg (Con, NE Somerset) wondered when Mr Robbins had started writing his Chequers papers.
‘These papers had their origins in other papers,’ said Mr Robbins. See how sneaky they are at this sort of thing? He finally conceded that the first versions of the Chequers papers were written ‘about a fortnight’ earlier.
Mr Rees-Mogg, with deadly politeness, said he did not hold Mr Robbins responsible for a ‘worrying’ breakdown in Cabinet government.
Mr Robbins thanked him. Mr Rees-Mogg now said that he blamed Mrs May. Mr Robbins gave a pale gulp, wishing he had not been so quick to thank the Mogg.
It is often said Tony Blair lied to ministers and to Parliament when he took us into the Iraq War, and that his dishonesty wrecked public trust in our political system.
If Mrs May has just misled her own ministers, on a national strategic relationship with the EU which may impede our economy for decades, her reputation will sink as low as that of the sharply hated Blair. And she will deserve the odium.
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