The key man in the background at the EU talks is known for his ability to chart a neutral course between warring parties

Friday’s key Brexit deal photo shows a slightly bleary-eyed Theresa May and David Davis grinning across the breakfast orange juice at their EU counterparts. There is a third figure on the British side of the table, less well-known but arguably just as vital: Olly Robbins.

The 42-year-old career civil servant, who in September moved from Davis’s Brexit department to work directly for May, was the lead UK “sherpa” in the talks, the official tasked with pinning down details and ironing out difficulties.

It is one of the more tricky civil service tasks imaginable but Robbins, who has had a meteoric rise through the Whitehall ranks, is renowned for his grasp of detail, appetite for work and ability to chart a neutral course between warring parties.

It probably helped that one of his early civil service roles after the obligatory degree in PPE from Oxford was amid a perhaps even more suspicious atmosphere, as he helped Gordon Brown’s Treasury liaise with Downing Street under Tony Blair.

Robbins rose at great speed and by the age of 31 was Blair’s principal private secretary, or head of the prime minister’s personal office, a role he kept for a period when Brown moved into No 10.

Subsequent roles included more than three years as David Cameron’s deputy national security adviser, during which time he was closely involved in government attempts to retrieve files passed to the Guardian by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Robbins’ role in the Snowden case included directly contacting the Guardian’s then editor, Alan Rusbridger, to insist that if the files were not immediately destroyed the government would take action against the newspaper.

Robbins later claimed that the Snowden revelations could lead to “widespread loss of life”, although no evidence was ever provided to back this up.

After a move from No 10 to the Cabinet Office as director general of the civil service, leading on reform of the service, Robbins joined May, when she was home secretary, as the civil servant in charge of immigration policy, a period that included one of his trickier public encounters.

Giving evidence to the home affairs select committee, Robbins upset MPs with a series of what they saw as evasive answers to queries about the border force budget. He was threatened with being held in contempt of parliament before the committee chair, the Labour MP Keith Vaz, ordered him to leave and find out the answers.

After the Brexit referendum, Robbins moved to the newly formed Brexit department under Davis, as the permanent secretary, the lead civil servant. But after little more than a year he was back at the Cabinet Office to work directly for May on the Brexit talks.

With the official title of the prime minister’s Europe adviser, Robbins leads a small “Europe unit” that works closely with the Brexit department.

His move was viewed at the time as a sign of tensions in the Brexit department, which after June’s general election had already lost two ministers. But in retrospect it could be seen as a sign of May taking a more personal grip on the process, and keeping the most important official under her control.

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