Spearheading Britain’s 90-strong team for Brexit talks in Brussels this week is a precocious 42-year-old with a string of demanding day jobs.
Olly Robbins is at the apex of Britain’s Brexit pyramid.
He is Prime Minister Theresa May’s principal Europe adviser and her “sherpa”, an emissary who prepares summits for their head of government.
He also runs the Department for Exiting the EU, building it from scratch over the past 12 months to a staff of nearly 500.
Finally, he is the co-ordinator of the negotiations, spending more time in Brussels than David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary.
“You can’t blame Olly,” said one of his principal intermediaries in Brussels. “But it looks crazy to me.”
A leading former civil servant in London agreed. “I can think of no precedent where someone is double hatted like this, working on the PM’s staff but also running a large government department. A sherpa can run a secretariat numbering a few dozen officials but not a department like Dexeu with nearly 500.”
All roads lead back to Mr Robbins. One senior official who works with him described the negotiations as “the Olly show”, while another of his colleagues joked that success would bring him to the very top of the civil service, but failure would lead to “the gallows”.
After graduating from Oxford in 1996 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, Mr Robbins initially joined the Treasury before rising through the civil service at near unprecedented speed, carving out a niche in security issues.
At just 31 he was appointed principal private secretary to Tony Blair, the then prime minister, and before the age of 40 he had been tipped as a possible head of MI5 and GCHQ intelligence services.
He has had some close scrapes, including being thrown out of a parliamentary hearing for failing to answer questions.
But he has prospered as a protégé of Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service.
His reputation has improved on the circuit of European sherpas, despite the sometimes confused signals emanating from Britain over Brexit.
Tomas Prouza, a former Europe minister for the Czech Republic, said he “always admired Olly’s ability to navigate the complex situation in London”.
“He was also very good on technical knowledge . . . unlike many UK politicians,” Mr Prouza said. “But it also meant he was stuck explaining hard truths to people who preferred dreams to reality.”
Klen Jäärats, the Estonian premier’s sherpa, said Mr Robbins was “very professional and very dedicated, with good insight on what is at stake . . . understanding that it is a lose-lose process that should not turn into something even worse for all”.
During meetings in Brussels and other capitals, Mr Robbins has urged his counterparts to ignore the political noise in Westminster and listen to only his message and that of the prime minister.
Some noted that he did not always mention Mr Davis, and that his message does not always tally with Mrs May’s.
Some EU officials were taken aback when Mr Robbins implied he should be the counterpart to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, a former French foreign minister and two-time EU commissioner.
There is also some resentment back in the UK that Mr Robbins’ approach — and tendency to hunker down under pressure — have amplified structural flaws in Whitehall’s response to Brexit.
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He is a centraliser in a job that once acted as a referee for Whitehall. Expertise has been pushed to the margins, his critics allege, as has unvarnished, difficult advice to politicians.
“Olly Robbins is formidably intelligent and quick to master a brief. He holds a lengthy meeting each week on Brexit with the prime minister and has a lot of access to her. But he holds a lot of the detail in his head. He is good at the upward management bit of the job but not the downward and lateral management,” said one senior civil servant.
There has also been criticism that Mr Robbins failed to intervene at critical junctures, for example not emphasising to the prime minister what the implications of leaving the European Court of Justice would be.
As the divisions over Brexit deepen, Mr Robbins could emerge as a target, especially if talks hit a crisis point.
Some government figures are floating the idea that Jon Cunliffe, the Bank of England deputy governor, could be recalled to head the Brussels negotiations, potentially taking a more public-facing role than Mr Robbins can in the civil service.
One senior EU figure who worked closely with Sir Jon during his time as Britain’s EU ambassador said: “He would be an extremely tough negotiator, but even someone of the calibre of Jon would struggle with this disaster.”
Others reject this idea. One former civil servant said: “I can’t see what the point would be of dropping Olly now. It would be an admission that the entire Brexit effort by the government isn’t working. But in six months or a year, if the rubber hits the road, you may have to make a change.”