If you are a bumbling old part-time soldier trying to launch the coup that will put you in power, one word wants avoiding like a scent bottle labelled “Novichok by Jo Malone”.
That word is panic. Only a eighth-wit or a stranger to Dad’s Army would ever use it in the Brexity setting. The moment anyone encounters it in the context of this insane proxy war, the image of Lance Corporal Jones, timeless archetype of uniformed bumbling old foolery, races to mind.
And not just Jonesy. Flashing to mind with him comes a comical scenario in which the country’s security is in the hands of laughably clueless amateurs who couldn’t be entrusted with the defence of the realm if the realm was Toytown, Tobermory, Trumpton or Camberwick Green. Which sounds about right for this Home Guard government.
So tin hats off to David Davis, the bumbling old part-time soldier (Territorial Army) in question, for not once using the word “panic” in his Sunday Times summons to the cabinet to remove Theresa May.
Whether using it twice was especially smart is another matter. We won’t hold its third appearance against him since he didn’t write the headline (“The panic has started on the continent. Now we must drive a hard bargain”).
But in the text, Davis referred first to “incipient panic” in Whitehall, on the eve of Wednesday’s European Council meeting, with Downing Street frantically trying to bribe and bully ministers not to resign over May’s poignant efforts to keep Chequers on life support.
Later, he echoed the headline with a reference to “German industrial companies beginning to panic over the prospect of no deal, and to publicly demand that their government do something to avoid it”.
His message is in two parts. First, almost everyone – cabinet, Brexiteers, Remainers, DUP, BMW’s management – is panicking due to the binding fear that we’re doomed. Fair enough. When a Tory prime minister becomes reliant on Labour votes to pass Chequers Lite, purely to kick the Irish border conundrum a couple of years down the road, and when that strikes up to 30 Labour Remainers as the sanest available option, panic is the logical position.
The second half of his message, meanwhile, is this: don’t panic, don’t panic – for I, David Davis, am ready and willing to serve in Theresa May’s place.
Here, he seems inspired by a less celebrated Clive Dunn character. He wants to be a caretaker like Charlie Quick, Dunn’s community centre janitor in the early 1970s ITV series Grandad.
But is this cuddly gramps the ideal figure to resolve the crisis and sweep away the chaos with his trusty broom? Evidently he calculates that if May falls in the days or weeks ahead, this could be his moment. In his own head, one assumes he sees himself as Churchill – an ancient in political terms (four years older at 69, in fact, than Churchill in 1939), and long ridiculed by his own party as a boozy, quixotic duffer, for whom the hour of destiny has belatedly arrived.
It’s time for him to end the appeasement, and let Berlin know that this country won’t buckle beneath nasty threats; that if our island story must end, it will end not in surrender, but with each and every one of us bleeding out in the mud.
Of course, another Chequers refusenik shares that self-image. But even if Boris didn’t finally shoot his bolt with all the conference fringe showboating, he is 54 – and young cardinals, as the Vatican saying goes, vote for old popes. You can guess the caretaker leadership pitch: I don’t want the job – the very idea! – but I need to do my duty. Pushing 70, I wouldn’t hang around for long. Just long enough to get us out – really out, on WTO terms if necessary. Then I’ll piss off to the Lords, and let one of the young’uns lead us into the 2022 election.
No one doubts this workaholic’s mastery of the detail. In two years as Brexit secretary he clocked up four hours of negotiations with Michel Barnier – almost as long as the 4,000 hours he spent staring at the office wall map of 18th century Europe like a wide-eyed seven-year-old poring over the 1954 Boys Own annual.
His qualifications brook no more argument than the might of his intellect and grasp on reality. This notion that the EU27, not liking it up ’em, are close to capitulation as the no-deal odds shorten is hard to dismiss. The relegation of Brexit to a lower spot on a recent summit agenda than a discussion about Macedonia makes the point.
I suppose Davis represents the country, or the roughly half that voted Leave, as well as anyone in the paddock. Clinging to the edifice of great power status that crumbled after Suez, stronger on empty bluster than hard logic, a mixture of arrogance and insecurity, muddle-headed and smug, inward-looking and narrow-minded.
But nothing cements his claim to be the Not Boris leader of the Tory provisional ultra wing, and the next prime minister, like his record of heroism under fire.
When things went against him in the summer, with the cabinet’s briefly unanimous acceptance of the Chequers proposals he’s trying to mould into the blade on May’s guillotine, he didn’t content himself with walking away. Only a petulant coward would do that. He walked away two days before Boris.
Now he’s back in the game, talking loudly and carrying a tiny stick, dreaming of swapping Jonesy’s bayonet for Grandad’s long-handled brush. Old part-time soldiers never die, as General MacArthur almost put it. They just bumble away in a fantasy land of their own.