Robbins must go – the EU negotiations need a fresh face

I have recommended many times over the last 15 months that the Prime Minister should shake up her negotiating team and bring in competent, Brexit-believing supporters, including from the business world.

She should recognise that Tuesday’s votes have provided her with a lifeline: she must finally take this chance to turn over the soil and put in fresh fertiliser to enhance the UK’s negotiating power. She can start by hiring expert negotiators.

Crawford Falconer was rumoured to have been brought in to the team and is someone I recommended should take over back in April last year. Living up to his name, Falconer has been busy flying around the world teeing up new and exciting trade deals. No doubt the International Trade Secretary regularly called upon his considerable experience as former Chair of the OECD Trade Committee, the WTO Subsidies Committee and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council National Committee.

As a Kiwi, Falconer would have been born with that positive, horizon-searching and can-do Commonwealth spirit needed to grasp the opportunities Brexit and national sovereignty provide.

Most importantly, EU negotiators will know he’s serious about walking away from the table, having been New Zealand’s Permanent Representative to the WTO, a senior WTO official for the New Zealand Foreign and Trade Ministry, Chair of the WTO DOHA round negotiations on agriculture and judged over 15 international trade disputes brought before the WTO including the Boeing-Airbus dispute. For the first time, the EU team would sit across the table from someone who knows the UK will do just fine on WTO terms; for the first time, they would take the UK seriously.

Julian Braithwaite was another name mentioned to have joined the negotiating team and, if his Twitter handle (@JulianUNWTO) is anything to go by, appears to be the kind of pro-WTO, global-looking guy the UK negotiators needs. He was the Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other International Organisations in Geneva (such as the WTO), Counsellor for Global Issues in Washington and Special Adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander in NATO. If he’s optimistic about the UK’s future outside the EU, then the Prime Minister should sign him up fast.

Next, the UK negotiating team needs Brexit-backing business people. There would be no shortage willing to come and help. But bringing in experienced negotiators is not enough: the Prime Minister must also remove the chief blockage in these failed talks: Olly Robbins.

He was the one who persuaded the Prime Minister to hand over at least £39 billion for nothing in return. He was the one who convinced her to drop her negotiating position on Northern Ireland by adopting membership of the Customs Union as a fall-back position. He was the one that said the worst deal in history was non-negotiable. He has to be held accountable.

Robbins lives by the motto “the man in Whitehall knows best”. He even reportedly texted the Chancellor to say the Prime Minister’s plan to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement was “for the birds” while she was setting out that plan to Cabinet. If you don’t believe in something, you will never secure a good deal. Yet, reports yesterday suggest Robbins remains firmly in charge of the UK’s exit talks.

He is the status quo. People are crying out for change in the way our country is governed and led. We cannot put up with this incompetence any more. But instead of challenging the status quo, the Government stumbles along as if Brexiteers’ support means nothing.

Robbins and his negotiating team never understood the negotiating leverage in our power. The EU will likely stall for a while longer (Juncker has said the deal isn’t negotiable, as I write). But they realise that, with every binding Brexit-blocking motion having been defeated on Tuesday, it is now their turn to compromise. Even the Labour leader has conceded to the idea of talking to Theresa May.

Number 10 and the Tory leadership lost a lot of trust when they recommended the worst deal in history to Parliament and the country. Rightly, this woeful plan was thrown back in their faces. They need to rebuild trust among Party members and voters, and a new negotiating team would instantly send a clear positive signal that they are listening and learning.