David Davis: “We’ve got to make sure the stake goes through the heart of the PM’s deal”
In July 2016 David Davis was appointed Secretary of State at the new Department for Exiting the EU and tasked with delivering Brexit. Two and a half years on, as MPs vote on the government’s withdrawal agreement, he is urging MPs to “drive a stake” into the deal, which he claims would be worse than remaining. He talks to Sebastian Whale about how we got here, and how he would get Brexit back on track
David Davis is smarting about missing his 6.30am “row”. Problems with the underground forced him to walk the three-mile journey to his home after the Spectator’s parliamentarian of the year awards. He arrived at gone two in the morning. His daily workout routine paid the price.
The former Brexit Secretary woke up a winner, however, after securing resignation of the year alongside his successor – and former chief of staff – Dominic Raab. Tracey Crouch, another ex-chief of staff to Davis, received the ministerial resignation of the year award. “It felt like a family occasion,” he says with tongue firmly in cheek. “I’m very proud of both of them, frankly. They will be seen in due course to have changed history in different ways. And that’s a fabulous thing.”
Truth be told, Davis first won the prize ten years ago after he stood down as Shadow Home Secretary and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency over concerns on civil liberties. “There was no competition in those days,” he muses. “Now 25 people are in line for the award.”
Theresa May appointed Davis to head up the newly formed Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) in July 2016. The 69-year-old spent two years as Brexit Secretary during the most consequential negotiations for the UK in recent memory.
But, after quitting the government in July, Davis is facing the prospect of Brexit being tainted by a deal he deems not only to be sub-par, but even worse than remaining in the EU. “That would be a less bad of two horrible options, basically. Neither is a good option. Neither is the option that’s going to happen,” he says.
Where once he was a loyal Cabinet minister, he now wants to stop the government’s agenda dead in its tracks. He is determined that the Prime Minister doesn’t get a second crack at getting her Brexit deal through the Commons. With typically vivid language, he says: “We’ve got to make sure that this doesn’t come back. We’ve got to make sure the stake goes through its heart and it gets buried at the crossroads.”
So, how did the man tasked with delivering Brexit end up in this situation? And does he have a plan to get things back on track?
Davis is running slightly behind schedule. I wait for him in his parliamentary office, which sits isolated up a spiral staircase close to the Commons chamber, just off Central Lobby. Only true Westminster insiders would know of its existence.
The office used to belong to the SNP whips. It is awash with greens and burgundies you’d come to associate with the Commons, alongside splashes of gold dotted here and there. Perhaps by design (Davis served in the SAS regiment of the Territorial Army), there is a War Room ambience about the place. A map of southern Afghanistan hangs on the wall above a lengthy meeting table beneath it. When in the Cabinet, Davis asked to keep the space rather than join his colleagues on ministerial corridor.
He conducts a phone call from his desk while I sit on his furniture at the opposite end of the room. I’m pretty sure I can make out who he is speaking to, and what about, but this is clearly of no concern to Davis. After the call, he takes a perch opposite me and cuts an audaciously relaxed figure, with his right leg hoisted over one of the chair’s arms.
Much is known about Davis’s persona – his calm disposition and macho aura. So too his upbringing; raised by his mum, grew up on a council estate in south London, didn’t really know his father, worked for Tate & Lyle before entering parliament in 1987 aged 38. He is also known for unlikely political alliances and friendships. One of those is (or perhaps was) with Jeremy Corbyn, whose most brilliant line to date, Davis reflects, was how the role of Brexit Secretary has become a “ceremonial function”. Is there truth to this?
“It’s evidently been reduced in size at each step. That is partly a reflection of the sort of balance of power between No10 and others, desperate attempts by the system to bring the thing under tighter and tighter control. Of course, to a limited extent,” he says. “It’s a good joke because it picks up the trend, but it doesn’t reflect the reality.”
Davis stood down after the Cabinet away trip to Chequers this summer, warning the UK had given away “too much and too easily” in the Brexit negotiations. It was the culmination of a trend that he felt began in earnest after the 2017 general election. Former Tory MP Stewart Jackson, who served as Davis’s Chief of Staff at DExEU, feels this was no way for May to repay her faithful colleague following the disastrous result. “I believe had David not come back and emphatically supported her on the 9th June after the election, her position would have been a lot more precarious. It’s a shame that loyalty and support wasn’t really reciprocated,” he tells me.
The first major change in the negotiating strategy was the creation of the Cabinet Office Europe Unit, with civil servant Olly Robbins as its head. “That really brought about institutional instability and confusion and set up the situation where the Prime Minister systematically and consistently undermined her own Secretary of State,” Jackson says.
Much has been made of the power of Robbins, the PM’s top Brexit advisor, and his pivotal role in shaping the negotiations. Davis says: “I don’t blame any individual, Olly Robbins or anybody else. But there’s certainly been a growth in the leverage of what you might term the advisory arm – the special advisers, the civil servants involved and so on – at the expense of the political arm, in terms of the Cabinet.”
The first Chequers summit in February would prove pivotal. Davis and others argued for the right to diverge from the EU on rules and regulations post-Brexit. “No10 didn’t like that outcome and drifted towards more civil service-based policy. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all doing what they think is right for the country. I don’t vilify people for that,” he explains. “What it means is you’re ending up with is a sort of Remainers’ Brexit. That means they don’t really understand what it is that Brexit was about.”
If that’s the case, does it really help for Brexiteers to leave the Cabinet? “If I thought I could have stopped the trend or reversed the trend, I wouldn’t have gone,” he replies. As for a lack of Leave voices, Davis says: “There’s the same technical number but they may not be as noisy. You’ve got to be weary of measuring either commitment or power by noise level. This is a notoriously or has been a notoriously leaky Cabinet and a spinny [sic] Cabinet, which I never did at all… It doesn’t mean that the noisy ones were more influential or otherwise.”
In May 2017, Davis predicted the “row of the summer” over the timetable for the negotiations. He refused to accept the EU’s insistence that the divorce bill and the Irish border should be included in the first stage. But, two months later, No10 caved into Brussels’ sequencing. The concession was not of itself “fatal”, he argues. “You just had to do something different in terms of the way we addressed the negotiation.” But the next blow came in the shape of the Irish border, and the government’s commitment to ensuring “full alignment” with the rules of the customs union and single market that uphold the Good Friday Agreement in the absence of a future agreement.
The policy, which was agreed last December, is known as the backstop. It is the mechanism through which a hard border in Ireland would be avoided should the UK and the EU end the transition period without a new arrangement in place. Brexiteers fear it would trap the UK perpetually within the orbit of the European Union. The DUP, the Conservatives’ confidence and supply partners, argue it would syphon off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The government insists neither side want to see it implemented.
Davis warned No10 at the time that harmonisation between the UK and the EU was “contrary” to the wider Brexit strategy. May said it was about “full alignment of outcomes, not full alignment of every single rule”.
“What I said to them was, ‘Prime Minister, I hope the other side think of it in those terms, because history is littered with examples of international agreements where each side interprets the same words in different ways’,” he says, citing the Balfour Declaration.
He adds: “Of course, the other side didn’t think that. At Chequers it suddenly slipped to effectively alignment of regulation. At that point I thought, well, this is not capable of being made into something that reflects the referendum.”
When in post, Davis’s detractors would often reflect on his apparently blasé attitude to Brexit. His comments about achieving the exact same benefits of EU membership, seized on by Labour, have appeared repeatedly. “Blasé? No. Upbeat? Yes,” he responds.
“The ‘exact same benefits’ [comment] was, as I made clear subsequently on more than one occasion, an aspiration not an actual test,” Davis says. “So that’s sort of daft, that’s just people literally playing politics with the national interest on both sides of the Chamber, I’m afraid.”
He continues: “My wife used to tease me about smiling too much, and there are two elements to that. One element was, yeah, of course, you’ve got to be bloody upbeat. This is the most difficult task in modern times.”
He told his wife that if he stops smiling, “the pound drops”. “That’s a slight exaggeration but not entirely untrue. So, you’ve got that part of it, which is the public leadership, don’t cry on parade, don’t walk around showing everybody what you think of the latest minutiae of the latest round of negotiations because that’s a, a way to undermine your own negotiation, b, to demoralise your own side, c, not to deliver your job.”
Davis also wanted to appear “utterly reasonable” in order to shine a light on what he deemed to be the “unreasonableness” of the European Commission and gain the favour of the 27 member states.
His critics also seized on what they deemed to be Davis’ lackadaisical approach to the role. A picture of him and members of the UK team sitting empty handed opposite an EU team surrounded by paperwork, led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, was used as evidence that Davis was poorly briefed.
“It was a setup by the Commission, of course. But we were used to that, we were used to that every single time. But you ask yourself, who’s the person better briefed, the person who’s got it in their head or the person who’s got a foot of papers in front of them. Eh?” he asks.
“Any of my Cabinet colleagues would tell you that our standard rule when the cameramen come into the Cabinet room is we take all the papers off the table, always.”
Being attacked from all sides is part and parcel of the job, Davis says. “Frankly, if you let that get to you then you’re better off not doing the job at all… It is a permanent process of being assaulted.
“You mustn’t worry about that. There are people who have nervous breakdowns – not in this job, but in politics – and it’s because they worry about those things, they let them get to them and that’s very bad for your own mental health but also bad for the job. The job is about ploughing a straight line through very stormy waters.”
Given where we are now, would he do anything differently? “No, not really. There are things that might have happened differently that would have made it easier, but it involves other people’s personal issues and I’m not going to go into those. At each stage I did what I thought was right, what I thought was actually in the national interest,” he says.
“Sometimes these things happen. She is a good Prime Minister. We just have a very fundamental difference on how this should have been done. My view on the negotiating strategy was different from the beginning, but I tried to make her one work.
“When she appointed me, she quite properly said, ‘I, the Prime Minister, will be the principal negotiator. You will support me’. I took the job on those terms. I suppose if I’d do something different, I suppose I could have said, ‘no I’ll do it’. But is that real? I don’t think so.”
Jackson says: “I took the view that it was better to be more robust with No10 and I think in retrospect when we saw what was planned way back in February at the first Cabinet meeting at Chequers, we should have seen what they were doing. Essentially, [Greg] Clark and [Philip] Hammond were always pushing for us to remain in the customs union. Of course, they used the backstop as the vehicle to bring that about.
“I just feel that we should have had the bust-up with No10 before Chequers, because that was the direction of travel. She’s famously incapable of expressing an opinion or coming to a conclusion at the end of a meeting. It’s very difficult for a Secretary of State to effectively accuse her of being dishonest – which she was.”
He adds: “On the substantive issues that could have avoided the impasse we are in now, David was correct.”
"Guys, can I have a cup of tea please?” Davis asks his aides in the other room midway through our conversation. Turning to me, he adds: “Running sugar short.”
On 11 December, MPs will have a meaningful vote on the PM’s Brexit deal. Around 100 Conservative MPs have stated their intention to vote against it. The DUP, Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems are all-but united in opposition.
Davis, who served as a whip under John Major, reckons some MPs will be “burnt off”. “I don’t know how many knighthoods they’re going to hand out, how many peerages, whether the price will go up – a hereditary dukedom,” he quips. “They’ll try all of that. I’ve been a whip. I reduced an 88 rebellion to one in the past. I’m not going to tell them how to do it.”
He adds: “I don’t think they’ll succeed. I think they’ll reduce the size of the rebellion.”
So, in the event of what seems to be an almost inevitable parliamentary setback for the government, how is Davis going to try and shape what happens next? He says the PM will review the size of a potential defeat and try to ascertain whether there is a coalition on which she can build “to still deliver something like what she’s got”. “So, the first thing is to stop that happening. This deal is no good at any level, right. It’s no good in terms of sovereignty, it’s no good in terms of economic future, it’s no good in terms of upsides,” he says.
He goes on to repeat his claim that “terror will win”. But rather than referring to Parliament caving into the fear of no deal, he says that the UK government and the EU would look to find a new solution.
“If this thing is buried, then they’ve got to go back with a complete alternative. Their problem then is time, their enemy is time, which is why I’ve said all along that you can do a Canada +++,” he argues.
“It’s Canada, which exists already, plus a bit of South Korea, which exists already, plus a bit of Switzerland, which exists already, plus a bit of New Zealand, which exists already and so on. Built entirely out of precedence.”
He adds: “And that gives you something fast. Anything else – re-running a negotiation – will take a long time and we’ll be into no deal before you can conclude it.”
Davis insists that Article 50 will not be extended in any event. “Once you extend, you take the time pressure off. What do you think the Union is going to do? Do you think it’s going to hurry up? Of course not. One of the problems with the negotiation, of being over-conciliatory, is it has telegraphed that we’re willing to give more.”
But he adds: “The biggest issue is the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill. To put that in place would have to be done fast. That would have to be done under an expedited procedure I’m afraid, very fast at the end. If we’re a month or so from the date the guillotine comes down as it were, then I think both Houses would do that because the implementation period is actually a very critical piece of it.”
Parliament isn’t going to buy what you want to sell, I tell Davis. There is no majority for a Canada+++ deal, which some say has no answer to the Irish border issue. “You don’t know,” he replies. There is also a lack of unity among Brexiteers on the right way forward – not that Davis is concerned. “The idea that somehow people should do what you tell them to, is a very socialist view of the world, I’m afraid, and I’m a Tory. I think people should do what in principle they believe,” he declares.
“I remember the day Margaret Thatcher stood down, I spoke to her at a drinks party celebrating John Major’s success and her departure. I said to her, ‘at least the party will be unified’. She said, ‘unified in pursuit of what, David?’. Bang, that was me knocked down.
“I’m not in the business of telling other people what to do and I’m certainly not in the business of letting them tell me what to do.”
What has he made of his fellow Leavers calling for the PM to step aside? “That’s for them, not for me.” Davis says there would be “parliamentary guerrilla war” against a second referendum, which in any case would take months to implement. Is there anything the PM could do to bring Davis round to voting for the Withdrawal Agreement? The answer is a resounding no. “It keeps us in the customs union. It keeps Ireland in the single market. It basically colonises Ireland as a sort of regulatory outpost of the European Union. It takes away all the upsides of the deal,” he says.
Following a visit to the United States, Davis says the Americans are ready to get cracking on a trade agreement. “The Americans are setting the legislative process in train in order to be able to negotiate with us and the EU and Japan – three separate strands – starting in March. I tell you this now, it’s plain as a pikestaff to me in Washington that we would be the first choice to get on with it in March. So, it will be a very fast negotiation starting very soon,” he says.
Turning back to the threat of delaying Article 50, he adds: “You start to extend and start creating doubt about when you’re going to get to the point where you could bring it into effect, you drop – to coin a phrase – from the front of the queue to the back of the queue.” It is for this reason that Davis says campaigners like himself must continue to articulate the “upsides” of Brexit, of which, to the surprise of no one, he believes are plenty.
Though Davis says the fear of no deal will force the Government to do “something different”, he argues ministers’ concerns of leaving on WTO terms are “slightly ill placed”. “The harm is asymmetric. The conventional wisdom is – and the conventional wisdom is often not conventional and certainly never wise – that we’d lose most. Nuh-uh,” he says during a five-minute soliloquy on why no deal isn’t as bad as it’s made out, including the virtues of a weakened pound and how to incentivise capital investment.
“Fear will, nevertheless, drive them towards a reengagement in the negotiation. That’s what I expect to happen. To do that, of course, what Parliament has to do is actually hold its nerve – and I think it will,” he predicts.
“We will get the right outcome at the end of this. It’ll just be more difficult now than it could have been if we’d negotiated rather differently.”