Whenever a minister resigns from the government on a point of principle he or she knows that the full might of the government spin machine will be deployed to depict them as either mad, bad or sad.
David Davis knows that better than most. Although he wasn’t in government in June 2008 when he resigned from David Cameron’s shadow cabinet over civil liberties issues, he did it the full knowledge that he would be trashed by his own party. In that particular case he was not only described as mad, bad and sad but also lazy and under the bewitching control of Shami Chakrabarti. This time, at least Downing Street and his opponents in the Tory Party are only concentrating on the sad and lazy bits.
Anyone who knows David Davis – and I’ve known him for 30 years – finds the ‘lazy’ accusation almost laughable. If he’s ever shown signs of not spending 24 hours a day on his current job, then perhaps that may be down to the fact that he’s never actually been allowed to do it properly. When he was appointed he quite reasonably assumed that as Brexit Secretary he would be developing the government’s policy and negotiating stance, and then implementing it. It soon became clear that this was very far from the case. He has been completely usurped in his role by a civil servant called Oliver Robbins.
Robbins and Theresa May first met at the Home Office where he rose to the position of Permanent Secretary. He moved across to DexEU but it soon became clear that he and David Davis weren’t hitting it off. The Prime Minister then recruited him to be her chief Brexit adviser, but he has become far more than that. Before the election Davis and his junior ministers found Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the PM’s robust joint chiefs of staff, constantly overruling them and seemingly incapable of making decisions. This led to the resignation of the brilliant DexEU minister, George Bridges. He’d had enough, and understandably so. But as Robbins took their place in the PM’s affections, he made the most of it and sought to debase Davis’s stature in Brussels and appeared determined to persuade the Prime Minister to head towards the softest of Brexits. Cue countless FT editorials about the wonders of Olly Robbins and how DD was never on top of the detail. I can’t think where those briefings came from.
Critics of Davis question why he allowed this to happen. The truth is that there was little he could do about it. The Prime Minister appeared to be in a Stockholm Syndrome situation. Robbins had taken her hostage. Dominic Raab, the new Brexit Secretary will be fully aware of this, given he is a protégé of David Davis. Whether he has sought guarantees from the Prime Minister about the role of Olly Robbins remains to be seen. Could it be that we are in for a repeat of 1989 when Margaret Thatcher famously told us that ‘advisers advise, ministers decide’? Several days later her chief economic adviser Sir Alan Walters had to fall on his sword after the sudden resignation of chancellor Nigel Lawson.
All politicians have egos. David Davis is no different. Most people have a degree of pride and self worth. Everyone has a point beyond which they cannot carry on. It’s not, as Anna Soubry would have us believe, about ‘grandstanding, ideology or ego’ – and let’s face it, she’s a fine one to talk. There isn’t a stand in the country over which she hasn’t ‘granded’.
In the end Davis’s decision came down to principle. Could he defend the Chequers accord in public and could he believe in it when he looked into Michel Barnier’s eyes? Would it betray the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union, not for a BRINO, a Brexit In Name Only? Would it make the possibility of a bad deal more likely? The answers to those questions are clearly, no, yes and yes.
Davis wasn’t impetuous, he took the weekend to consult and came to a totally understandable conclusion.
He doesn’t want to topple Theresa May. He had the chance to do that in the 48 hours after last June’s election but was the first to pledge loyalty to her. He won’t stand in any leadership election and he admits he hopes she’s right and he’s wrong.
This is not the mark of a man on an ego driven voyage, laced with personal ambition. David will know that he will never be a minister again. His days of wielding power are probably over. But his pro Brexit voice on the backbenches will be a powerful one. When he comes to make his first speech from the backbenches, we can be sure that there won’t be an empty seat. The Prime Minister would do well to pay heed to what he has to say.