David Davis: Bullish wheel-greaser or Brexit fall guy?

Has the barroom bonhomie left the UK’s negotiating position weaker than it should have been?

UK Brexit minister David Davis says there will be no regulation-light “Mad Max” economy that will aim to undercut rivals after Brexit. Video: Reuters

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Even by the standards of party conference season, it was an impressive show of stamina. An afternoon that began for David Davis in the bar of Manchester’s Malmaison hotel ended, after midnight, with him holding court at a raucous party for backbench MPs celebrating Brexit on the other side of town. British prime minister Theresa May, who earlier interrupted proceedings to warn them it would not all happen overnight, had long since left the room to rest her voice.

Four months later, the Brexit secretary is still standing. Despite rumours swirling that night that he would stand down before the PM’s transition phase began, Davis returns to Brussels this month to negotiate the terms of the standstill. He has survived a series of gaffes and confrontations in parliament that would poleaxe lesser ministers and sold a series of once unimaginable concessions to backbenchers who had sworn to oppose them.

But for all those supporters who see him as a Brexit talisman, vital to keeping the show on the road, there are many who wonder if he has become the government’s fall guy; a lightning rod for criticism, whose substantive role as chief negotiator has been eclipsed by his former permanent secretary. Interviews with a dozen senior colleagues also paint a worrying picture of his personal abilities, questioning whether the man in charge of taking Britain out of the EU has the attention to detail and work ethic to cope with its complexities; whether the barroom bonhomie and bluster has left the country’s negotiating position not stronger, but weaker than it should have been?

They still have not fully come to terms with the consequences of leaving

Some rightwing critics have already been publicly scathing. Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings, memorably described the Brexit secretary as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad, and vain as Narcissus”. Davis’s former chief of staff James Chapman also accused his boss of drunken misbehaviour in a House of Commons bar and working a three-day week. “I feel it is time to get annoyed with Mr Davis,” wrote Thatcher biographer Charles Moore recently. “For ages now, he has been flying from meeting to meeting, speaking at dinner after dinner, staying late at party after party, encouraging his bonhomous reassurance to be favourably contrasted with Mrs May’s anxious gloom.”

In private, those who have worked with Davis paint a more nuanced and sympathetic picture, while confirming the outlines of the caricature. “In meetings he is more serious and slightly more across the detail than he appears,” says a former No 10 official. “He did believe a fair amount of his own bulls**t, but unlike other cabinet Brexiteers, he was in touch with objective reality.”

“Davis is what you see,” adds a senior colleague who worked for him and is one of a number of sources who confirm his fondness for a drink. “He is not stupid, but he is quite idle - a good parliamentarian and maverick in Tory terms, yet immensely difficult because he’s just got thousands of prejudices for every occasion.”

‘Thin on the ground’

Either way, prime minister May cannot claim to be surprised. Downing Street insiders say Davis has ably performed his intended role as “the one person confident and certain enough of Brexit policy to go out and defend it - unflappable even when people think he should be flapped”. “DExEU (the department for exiting the European Union) was set up for political reasons,” explains a former Brexit minister. “People who knew what they were doing were pretty thin on the ground.”

When the department and its colourful figurehead were announced, the news is said to have been “greeted with laughter” at a dinner of former British ambassadors, who questioned where Davis would fit in to their rigid diplomatic world. Even his old friends warned that the 69-year-old was “encrusted with prejudices that have been built up for 25 years and (are) virtually unshiftable”. After a year in which many expected him to be knocked off course, a man who once boasted proudly of his own reputation as a “ charming bastard” and “master of constructive obstruction” arguably proved them wrong.

There was a lot of secrecy . . . Nobody was allowed to see the cabinet papers.

The decision to invoke article 50 by March 2017 was made quickly and with little consultation. Even top British civil servants at the heart of the Brexit process were given just 24 hours’ notice of Downing Street’s intention to publicly set the clock ticking and commit the country to a historic departure come what may.

Nervous officials responded by putting more of their advice in writing so that there was an audit trail of what they felt was a “major strategic and tactical mistake” to trigger the start of exit negotiations so early. “(The prime minister) is going to turn around to us in the middle of 2017 and say, ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me that before?’” one of her top advisers was warned. “We are not educating her fast enough about the reality.”

Not only are several senior figures in government now questioning whether more could have been done to agree the process for negotiations in advance of starting the clock; some now claim it was what the other side was ready for Britain to do.

“In an ideal world, you would have said, ‘I want a complete agreement about how the process works and I want a trade negotiation in parallel and you must find a way to do it,’” explains one British official. “If (May) had forced the issue hard enough, she would have made a lot of progress. The French have told me explicitly that they were expecting that and that had she pushed it cleverly, she would have got it.”

Yet at the time, even some ministers responsible for communicating government Brexit strategy were prevented from seeing the sensitive minutes discussing what it should be. “There was a lot of secrecy,” says one. “Nobody was allowed to see the cabinet papers.”

Michel Barnier (left) and Davis give short statements after a lunch meeting on February 5th, 2018. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
Michel Barnier (left) and Davis give short statements after a lunch meeting on February 5th, 2018. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

Extremely controlling

At the request of both the prime minister and Brussels, there was also a near-total ban on cross-channel meetings before the start of formal talks, even for the Brexit secretary. “The PM is extremely controlling and so were (her advisers Nick) Timothy and (Fiona) Hill, so they didn’t license Davis to do anything much before Christmas (2016),” says an official. “He certainly wasn’t licensed to talk to any foreigners until after the October EU council meeting.”

One bilateral meeting that was arranged informally between Davis and Michel Barnier later that autumn drew a rebuke from those around the prime minister anxious not to give too much away.

When talks did start in earnest after the UK election, the EU negotiators were puzzled by the confident but underprepared figure leading the British delegation opposite them. One senior participant on the Brussels team recalls that Barnier and Davis “got on OK on the first day”, but largely because the British team quickly folded on the vexed question of whether talks on trade should wait - a subject the Brexit secretary had previously boasted would be “the row of the summer”.

He’s not the referee any more, and you can’t operate like that.

Barnier himself remains polite about his counterpart. “I respect him. He is a politician with experience,” he said. The EU’s chief negotiator said that relations had “got a little bit better” over the course of Brexit talks “because we have often seen each other and worked together. He is the British negotiator, alongside (former DExEU permanent secretary) Olly Robbins, with a very competent team.”

But behind the scenes, the day-to-day momentum quickly shifted to the army of civil servants led by Robbins, and the EU side saw little of the politician nominally in charge. During the first full week of talks, in July, the Brexit secretary took part in less than an hour of initial discussions before returning to London. At the time, this was viewed as a symptom of the parliamentary turmoil back home, but subsequent departmental records show that Davis returned to London to have a private dinner with the Daily Mail’s editor Paul Dacre the next day.

Whatever the cause of the distraction, it slowed proceedings down to a glacial pace. “We wasted quite a bit of time,” says a Brussels source. “They still have not fully come to terms with the consequences of leaving.” Even today, the EU team privately refers to the British chief negotiator by his surname only, whereas the omnipresent official with whom they actually established some rapport is known universally as “Olly”.

‘Difficult position’

One senior European diplomat recalls the impression made by Davis when the Brexit secretary visited their national capital. “There was a strong feeling that he had been put in a difficult position. We had the impression that he was not fully in charge of things.” The diplomat said it was clear Theresa May was leading the process, and that left her Brexit secretary in an awkward position. “Our impression is that he is not fully empowered. He is a negotiator, but not the chief negotiator, (NOT) the equivalent of Michel Barnier.”

Whitehall insiders say the tension between the political and civil service leadership was an inevitable consequence of the flawed structure of DExEU, which saw the permanent secretary working for both the department and the prime minister.

“If you set up a separate department working for a secretary of state and then put Robbins in charge of that, you are giving Robbins two masters,” says one civil service veteran. “He’s bound to have to go round the back of his secretary of state to report to the prime minister because he is doing the sherpaing (advising the prime minister) and at that point you lose the trust of the secretary of state.”

It also left Davis stranded in a political wilderness when it came to influencing other departments in government, many of which frequently ignored him on key issues of Brexit policy. “We have a created an institution in DExEU which is not an impartial adjudicator, umpire and puller-together of intelligence; it is working for a secretary of state who is one of the players,” said the Whitehall veteran. “He’s not the referee any more, and you can’t operate like that.”

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Eventually Robbins was moved back to No 10, where he heads a small EU team that works with a slightly bigger unit in the Cabinet Office. Several UK sources confirm reports that the final straw came with a row between the two men over the secretary of state’s use of government aircraft. In Brussels they regard Downing Street and Treasury imposition of a transition strategy to have been the moment Davis lost control.

For many observers, a process of this magnitude was always going to be led by No 10. “I don’t get the impression that the construction of DExEU has really damaged the UK’s prospects one way or another,” said the former Downing Street official. “In a big negotiation like that, it will have to come down to the prime minister.”

DExEU bristles at the suggestion that it has been largely written out of the Brexit story, recently denying that meetings between Barnier and Robbins without Davis were a sign he had been irretrievably sidelined . It blamed the rumours on Brussels troublemakers.

Vain, bombastic

Yet a similar process has arguably been under way on the EU side, where German deputy Sabine Weyand is now seen as pulling the strings. “Olly and Sabine are the real players,” confirms a UK official. “Barnier is vain, bombastic, himself quite idle, abler and more experienced than Davis as a negotiator, but the brains of the outfit is Sabine Weyand and the people beneath her.”

Through all of this, what the man known in Westminster circles simply as DD did bring was confidence. Since his 17 years as an executive in the sugar industry , the former SAS reservist has believed in a pugnacious style of negotiating that prizes outward bravado over all else. “A general air of visible determination and activity is extremely important to the perception-shaping exercise,” wrote the young executive for Tate & Lyle in a management textbook that outlined his approach to deal-making.

Those around him say it was often heartfelt too - at least at first. “At the outset he believed a lot of his own bluster and rhetoric,” says a former colleague at DExEU. “DD believed the stuff about how we were not a supplicant, with many more cards, how we were in pole position, we could play off the member states against each other, we were going to undermine the theologians of the institutions.”

In this, the DExEU secretary of state was fully aligned with a Downing Street Brexit strategy some have compared to a hedgehog approach: curl up in a ball, give little away and present as spiky an exterior as possible to enemies. The fact that his earlier confidence in being able to circumvent EU bureaucrats had begun to fade did not dim the need to keep up a confident demeanour.

“If you are able to create positive energy simply by stating government policy, it might give you a bit more room to pull the wool over people’s eyes about how it’s going to happen,” says the No 10 insider. “There is a performative aspect, being seen to show it’s happening. Brexit is becoming more psychological than real.”

It was a stressful business, which has taken a mental toll on many involved. Officials talk of having to brief stories they knew would unravel almost instantly: “They are like sweeties. There’s a sugar rush and then they are gone.” Weeks were wasted dealing with meaningless boasts from the prime minister, such as her call for a “red, white and blue” Brexit. Above all, those around the Brexit secretary had to clean up whenever he overstepped the mark, something he did recently when he described the December deal struck by Robbins as not legally binding, or pretended that officials had conducted detailed scenario planning.

We don’t have the wisdom in the system. The political class can’t cope with the complexity of it

“We were making it up as we went along,” says a Downing Street source, describing the process as “Pythonesque”. “There were forms of language that no one knew what they meant and frustration at times at the odd comment that requires work to clean up. What does it mean? You have to find a way of pivoting away from the question and make sure the rest of Whitehall knows how to pivot away.”

Obscure institutions

But it was a strategy dictated by political leaders who felt they had little choice, who had little knowledge of obscure institutions such as Euratom that were being put at risk, and who regarded the legalistic experts around them and in Brussels with contempt.

Even Robbins is said to have been on a steep learning curve, having largely worked on security matters before being parachuted into his EU role. An official who worked to bring him up to speed says: “To go through the biggest single negotiation with someone who has got no background in the current treaties, doesn’t know what the customs union is, doesn’t know what the single market it, has a hazy knowledge of EU budgets ? only the British would do it like that.”

In this context, Davis fitted in perfectly, concludes the Downing Street official. “The UK is run by generalists,” he says. “There is no particular sense that if DD had been a better or more detail-orientated minister that it would decisively gone one way or another, because ultimately the real crunch decisions were taken by the PM.”

“Our political class, including officials and journalists, is coming up against a process which isn’t just about bright men who are plausible and get the broad outlines. The EU is built on a really rigid legal order. Our difficulty is when our generalism comes into contact.”

“We just can’t cope with it,” agrees the DExEU source. “We don’t have the wisdom in the system. The political class can’t cope with the complexity of it.” –Guardian

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