We’ve been here before. When I heard, late last night, that David Davis had resigned, my mind didn’t go back to 2008 when he suddenly resigned as shadow Home Secretary, it went back nearly 30 years to the resignation of the then chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson from Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. He quit over the Svengali-like role of her chief economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters. Within hours he had gone as well, and a year later so had she. Will history repeat itself? That’s the question everyone in Westminster is asking today. Is Theresa May’s chief Brexit adviser, Oliver Robbins, the Alan Walters de nos jours?
This resignation is about as far from a flounce as you can get. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. It’s one that has been building for months. It’s also not dictated by ambition. David Davis is no political spring chicken and it’s unlikely to be the start of a bid for the top job. He knows his best chance of that came on June 9th last year, the morning after the general election. Had he moved against Theresa May then, he would have probably succeeded her. Instead, he was the first to pledge his loyalty to her. Oh, how he must regret that now.
In the end, Davis’s decision to resign came down to a very simple fact. He couldn’t reconcile his conscience with betraying the votes of 17.4 million people in the referendum. In his view that’s what the Chequers accord did. And it’s hard to disagree. Regulatory alignment will make it harder for Liam Fox to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries. Quite why Liam Fox doesn’t see that is anyone’s guess. In addition, Britain will become a vassal state of ruletakers, and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will continue, albeit in limited form. We now have the worst of all words.
As Davis said in his devastating resignation letter, the Prime Minister has progressively diluted the Brexit objectives and we have reached a point where we will be exiting the European Union in name only. It’s become known as the BRINO Brexit.
For two years now, David Davis has wanted to publish a full white paper on Brexit, laying out to the British public and the EU exactly what Britain wants. For two years he has been thwarted by Theresa May and Olly Robbins. He finally got his way and it was to have appeared in early June. It was written and ready to go. But Robbins and May (in that order) stepped in and refused to publish it until after the Chequers away day. Quite what it will now say is anyone’s guess.
Having dealt with Michel Barnier for two years David Davis believes that the EU will now exact more concessions from the government and that Theresa May will willingly give them. He was appalled that Theresa May revealed her hand to the German Chancellor last Thursday before her own Cabinet. He, himself, only learned what the Prime Minister was planning late on Thursday afternoon, after Theresa May returned from Berlin. She didn’t quite have a Chamberlainesque white piece of paper in her hand, but she might as well have.
The pathetically laddish briefing from Number Ten about government cars being taken away from any resigning cabinet ministers didn’t help improve the Brexit Secretary’s mood. He sat through the Chequers discussions realising what he had to do but determined to do it to his own timetable, no one else’s.
Given that cabinet ministers’ phones had been taken away from them, resigning on Friday night was never likely. When I spoke to him last night, minutes after his resignation, he told me the first thing he needed to do was inform his constituency chairman. Process matters to him.
He spent the weekend mulling it over and came to the conclusion he had no other option. He was receiving a lot of conflicting advice, including from some hardline Brexiteers that he should stay and continue to fight the good fight from within. But he knew the Chequers agreement was a pig in a poke and he couldn’t seriously look Michel Barnier in the eye and stand behind it. Decision made.
It’s therefore all the more surprising that Dominic Raab has been chosen to succeed David Davis. He is a hardline Brexiteer and I doubt he supports anything agreed at Chequers. Ambition can be a wonderful persuader. Raab is also a complete creation of DD. He succeeded me as his chief of staff in 2006 and has benefited from his patronage ever since. Raab and Theresa May are said have a difficult personal relationship, so his appointment is bewildering. But it’s part of a pattern of weakness on the part of the Prime Minister. She and Sajid Javid don’t get on personally either, yet she was forced to appoint him to the Home Office. History has repeated itself, and quickly.
Sadly, Dominic Raab has an impossible job. It is like being made Captain of the Titanic after it has hit the iceberg. Mrs May’s government is listing badly to the left. Whether it has been holed below the waterline remains to be seen. It depends at least in part on how many others follow Davis’s lead.
Boris Johnson has a dilemma. If he follows DD out of the cabinet he will be seen as a follower, not a leader. If he doesn’t, well, that’s the final nail in the coffin of his leadership ambitions. Catch 22.
Time will tell whether enough Tory MPs now put in their letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee demanding a vote of confidence in Mrs May. Only 48 of them need to do so. The thought of a three month long leadership contest at a time when there are only six months to go before a deal with the EU has to be negotiated will no doubt concentrate some minds. However, given that the EU goes on holiday for the whole of August, that might not put off too many of them. Whatever the truth of that, some may delay sending their letters due to President Trump’s visit later this week. Imagine Graham Brady looking sternly down a camera lens announcing he has the 48 letters necessary, just as Airforce One lands on British soil.
Almost as unthinkable as a Brexit Secretary resigning the day before he’s due to head off on a tour of European capitals to sell the Chequers deal.