When Theresa May finished her now infamous speech last Wednesday — blaming MPs across Parliament for the failure of Brexit — one question was on everybody’s lips: “Jesus, who wrote that?” The answer is Robbie Gibb, her director of communications. And not only did he write it, say a handful of senior Tories, but the Prime Minister trusts him. And why wouldn’t she? Gibb is loyal, determined, clever and, aside from her husband Philip, “one of the last people in the room,” according to a former cabinet minister.
Indeed, May’s isolation is stark. This week she lost the faith of her Chief Whip, Julian Smith, who is exasperated with her attack on the MPs he must corral. His deputy, Paul Maynard, made a tearful plea for May to go, telling her she had “betrayed Brexit” and is “destroying our party”. Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff, “a devout antagonist of Brexit”, has been “in dark exile for a while” and the rest of her staff have been jumping ship for weeks.
In fact, since May took over in July 2016, she has lost dozens of ministers and aides. These include Katie Perrior, her former director of communications, and her “toxic twins” Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, advisors brought in from her Home Office days who walked the plank after 2017’s snap election. May barely looked back as they were swallowed by the high seas of vitriol. Did she care if they drowned? Who knows: she’s scarcely spoken to them since.
So who is Robbie Gibb? Where — aside from May — do his loyalties lie, and what part is he playing in the current turbulence rattling Downing Street?
The first point everyone makes about the 54-year-old former head of BBC Westminster is that he is a “messianic Brexiteer”. His loyalty to Brexit is stronger than to May. Two years in the job, he’s said to believe, is “the perfect time frame. He expects Brexit to be delivered by then. It’s the only reason he’s in No 10.”
Certainly he arrived at a time of turmoil. The PM had just gambled and lost the Tory party majority in the 2017 election. The Grenfell Tower fire dominated the news. It seemed at the time that the Tories couldn’t be more unpopular.
But inside No 10, Gibb was “establishing order.” He introduced a strategic new “grid” — the daily planning system — say staff. “From then on, it was very precise. You could see the messages.” Others add that he’s obsessive, getting “very cross if something happens and it isn’t on the grid.”
Overall, he is “meticulous and well-organised”, arriving at 7am from his “suburban home outside London”, wearing a trademark uniform of grey flannel suit and white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. His desk is immaculate: a key attribute, he says, is a “tidy mind”. Visible on documents is evidence of his “very tiny, neat handwriting.”
That’s not to say he’s unfriendly. After the election, “No 10 became more collegiate. Part of that was him”. Unlike those before him, “he’s much more adviser than consigliore”. He went for drinks, and for jogs, with the press team’s Kirsty Buchanan, and extolled at length the benefits of the 5:2, a yo-yo diet “which he thinks makes so much sense.”
Contrary to the stereotype — perhaps built by Alastair Campbell in the role of spin doctor for Tony Blair — Gibb is not volatile. A former colleague says: “When he disagrees he’ll exclaim: ‘Utter farce!’ He’d say it all the time. ‘Utter farce!’” At the end of every week he goes home and coldly assesses his work — “examining whether he could have done anything better,” says a former minister.
What kind of Conservative is he? “A conventional one,” says another minister. “A moderniser: socially liberal and economically dry. Not a great interventionist. Although he gets on with Philip Hammond.” He was a “hard Brexiteer long before it became fashionable” but the ERG ultras still loathe him, “because he back the PM’s deal, which they see as false Brexit.” Gibb is more like Michael Gove: “Any Brexit to get over the line. Flaws can be sorted once we’re out”.
His Euroscepticism chimes with the politics of his brother, schools minister Nick Gibb, who introduced the phonics system and was one of the first MPs to come out as gay. It says something about his tact that Nick asked Robbie to tell their elderly mother about his sexuality in case she said something “she might regret.” (Their father died in 1996). Gibb grew up in Leeds and Wakefield (he supports Leeds United). He studied economics and public administration at the University of London before taking a series of jobs at the BBC. His first foray in politics was working for the then shadow chancellor Francis Maude. A Tory who met him after he’d joined Michael Portillo’s leadership campaign in 2001 remembers a rare moderniser in Portillo’s circle. “[Nick and Robbie] were comfortable supporting Portillo because he was the great Eurosceptic hope.” That Robbie Gibb was “in essence” the same as he is today — “he’s bald and middle-aged now, then he was young with a receding hairline. But he had the glint in his eye. He really cared. It wasn’t just political games.”
Actually, Euroscepticism is a thread through his career. When he returned to the BBC, he made no attempt to hide the fact that he was Conservative. “He felt strongly at times that the balance was too far to the Left and Blairism,” says a former colleague. A cabinet minister adds: “He is unusual for someone schooled in the BBC in that he is avowedly partisan.”
On the Andrew Marr show during the referendum, however, he had two caps — “one Remain, one Leave” — which he would physically switch over depending on whose views they were airing. A great friend was Andrew Neil, whose politics and political analysis he held in high regard. Gibb, his wife Liz and two daughters would holiday at Neil’s house in the south of France. Gibb travelled by train or car. “He is afraid of flying,” says a former colleague. “That’s why he never accompanies the PM on official trips.”
Peter Barron, his boss when he was at Newsnight, says Gibb was always “fascinated by the mathematics and machinery of politics. My impression is that he lived and breathed politics. It is his job and hobby. Nothing comes to mind about other interests.”
He drove his team “hard”. But he is “funny”. At one Westminster party, he got “physical” with a cardboard cut out of Margaret Thatcher and threw himself into the annual petanque match at his team’s summer party. “He also took delight in mischievous ideas,” Barron says. During the World Cup in 2006, Gibb sent a car bedecked in England flags to Glasgow to test “anti-English sentiment.” The car was smashed up. “Strathclyde police got in touch, asking questions about inciting racial hatred — which was slightly scary.”
Barron was not surprised when Gibb took the Downing Street job, although he had “a good career ahead of him at the BBC”. In 2016 he was offered a job at DExEU with David Davis but turned it down on the grounds that there was only one job he wanted: No 10’s director of communications.
Will he stay to the bitter end? “He’s evangelical about Brexit,” says a minister. “But put it like this: he won’t die in a trench fighting off May’s enemies with a knitting needle.”