David Davis On The Brexit Battle Ahead: 40 'Rock Solid' Rebels Are Ready To Vote May's Chequers Deal Down

Paul Waugh

For David Davis, life is no longer as sweet as it once was. The former Brexit Secretary, an erstwhile Tate & Lyle executive who famously took four sugars in his tea, now taps artificial sweetener into his daily mug of ‘builders’.

But while Davis may have cut back on sugar and alcohol (“I haven’t had a glass of wine, at home, all summer”), it seems he just can’t give up his addiction to politics. Or his mission to deliver the ‘Leave’ vote of the 2016 referendum.

Having quit the Cabinet in July, in protest at Theresa May’s Chequers plan to keep the UK aligned with the EU, the 69-year-old ex-SAS territorial has spent the summer getting fit and is now gearing up for his biggest battle yet on Brexit. He and backbenchers in the Tory ‘European Research Group’ aim to use the party conference next week, then the vote in Parliament that will have to happen before the end of the year to meet the March 29 deadline for exit day, to derail the PM’s Chequers proposals.

Some Government whips have been busy trying to point out divisions within the ERG group, but Davis makes clear they are a formidable voting bloc that cannot be ignored. “Every group in any political party has differences, egos and so on. But with Labour voting against, the critical size of the voting bloc is quite small, it’s basically a dozen people,” he says.

“The rock-solid core of the ERG is a multiple of that. I’m not even an ERG member. It’s probably 30, 40.”

What is increasingly irritating Davis is May’s insistence that the only options are her plan or a ‘no deal’ scenario.

“The argument that this is all that’s on offer is just nonsense,” Davis says. He thinks that the most obvious alternative is a free trade deal, building on similar agreements between the EU and Canada, South Korea and Switzerland. 

“No one thinks about the dynamics of this. In November when the alternatives are either no deal or WTO or free trade-plus, free-trade plus will look very attractive. The EU will have walked Chequers up a cul de sac because they will try and get more.” 

Why is Davis so confident that his argument will win the day? The answer lies in the response from the public he says he’s had to his resignation. “The day I resigned, I got on the train to go north from King’s Cross and as I got on the train everybody on the train congratulated me.”

He reflects on the moment when he, Boris and others rebelled over May’s proposed Chequers deal. “It was quite interesting how quick the polls reacted. I suspect for quite a few it was ‘well, if Davis and Johnson and Baker don’t believe in it then there’s something wrong with it’. I suspect there’s little more than that. The public flipped against Chequers without quite understanding what Chequers is.

“Most of the Leavers still want to leave, and all you have to do is to go outside the M25 and talk to ordinary people, not journalists and professors of law. ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet?’ is the view of most Leavers - and of some significant numbers of Remainers too.”

Theresa May arrives for a family photo during the European Union leaders informal summit in Salzburg, Austria

Davis has studiously opposed any leadership challenge to May, but he has an ominous warning for No.10 over any attempt to turn the Chequers vote into a vote of confidence in the PM. “It’s very high risk… You have to bear in mind that these decisions are made in context, in the context of the day and what’s happened in the previous week and whether there have been other  problems... what’s the Prime Minister’s standing at the point in time?”

Does he think some in the ERG would join Labour in voting no confidence in the PM?

“You’ll have to ask them. You’ve got some people who have been fighting this battle for 35 years. At the end of the day we are all tribal and people are reasonably terrified of a possible Corbyn victory. That’s what they [No10] are banking on. We will see who blinks.”

Davis clearly believes he and his colleagues have that extra incentive to dig in, hold their nerve and fight for the Brexit they want. “My ‘taxi driver moment’ was with a load of builders. My wife was having a new kitchen installed, every time I came home on a Friday there would be a new set of builders, carpenters, decorators, carpet layers, and every single of one of them, without fail 100%, voted Leave. And as I turned up every single one of them raised it in conversation with me.

“These are the skilled working classes, they run a business, they fill in VAT returns which is more than most MPs can do. Even the ones about immigration it wasn’t ‘we don’t want all these foreigners here’ it was ‘I haven’t had a pay increase for 10 years and it’s because lots of people have come in to compete on jobs’. A decorator said to me ‘I don’t blame them if I was Polish I would come here too. I blame the politicians for allowing it to happen’.

 “What the elites don’t understand is what in one context they would call crowd sourcing the wisdom of crowds in another context is populist democracy, they think it’s the dumbness of crowds. Actually it’s everybody talking about their own circumstance, the thing they are all expert in.

In full flow now, he goes on: “There were seventeen and a half million experts who voted to Leave. They weren’t experts in economics, they didn’t propose to be able to write 15 year economic forecasts that everybody thinks are bollocks. They know what exactly has happened to their job in the last 10 years and they’ve got a good idea what’s going to happen.

“One of the huge problems of the Western elites is arrogance. The Queen famously asked of the 2008 crash, ‘why did nobody see it coming?’ Why, because we’ve got the dumbness of expertise. Very often we haven’t got the humility we ought to have.”

It’s this bigger picture that Davis says is what’s really at stake in the kind of Brexit May tries to deliver. “The stakes are confidence in society, confidence in the ruling elite, confidence in democracy are all in play.”

And if the PM gets it wrong and Leave voters feel betrayed, who would benefit? “Anybody who wants to play the populist card that the elites have let you down. Populist something, whether it’s far right or far left, I don’t know.

“Remember in Greece you’ve got Tsipras.  Look at Trump’s economic policy - it isn’t far right, it’s tax cutting but it’s infrastructure spending. You can see a populist eclectic could do well.

“The common denominator with Trump and Farage is whenever you throw dirt at them nobody pays attention because they think that’s just the Establishment doing what it normally does. So, you are going to get de-sensitised populist demos if you like.”

Davis isn’t suggesting there would be civil disobedience, but he does say a sense of betrayal would create a new opening for a new kind of political force or leader.

Would the new populists be more dangerous? “Oh yes, Farage is not dangerous. Even someone like William Hague, the ultimate Establishment writer, said if this isn’t delivered properly there will be hell to pay.”

The damage to the mainstream political parties could take ‘a very long time’ to repair, he suggests. “When people get in like that they can hold power for a long time. So, the worst outcome would be a non-delivery outcome.”

David Davis, Theresa May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier meet at the European Commission in Brussels last year

Davis is unimpressed by suggestions that Tory rebels will be bought off by a vague form of words in the political declaration that is due to accompany the EU withdrawal agreement.  Some suggest there could be a ‘Cheqada’ ruse, with the wording including bits of Chequers and bits of ‘Canada-plus’. He says that MPs won’t hand over the £39bn Brexit divorce bill in return for vague promises or a ‘Blind Brexit’.

“We’ve got more negotiating power than we realise, but in order to exercise it we’ve got to go to the brink. The moment you give the £39bn away you will not get the deal you want. This isn’t theory. Look at the last couple of days Junker said if we [the EU] are unified ‘we can impose our will’, impose our will on others. 

“Blind Brexit won’t work and people won’t vote for it. Labour would have a good case for saying we don’t want to pay £39bn for a pig in a poke. We don’t want to put them in a position where they can turn round to the British public and say ‘we did the right thing, we didn’t want to give away £39bn of your money, however many hundred hospitals that is’.” 

Davis insists that among Tories “nobody wants a general election” and he’s determined to “not pollute this argument with the leadership argument”. May is “a good Prime Minister, broadly speaking”. But in any discussion of the Tory leadership, Boris Johnson’s name is never far away.  Isn’t Johnson’s X factor likely to take him into Number 10?

“That’s a very simple view of the world. It’s ‘what will we need at the time?’ After Brexit, it depends what kind of Brexit it has been. We might need a healing leader. If it’s immediately before the next election, we need an electoral leader, which might favour Boris.”

And Boris in particular? “It’s a bit like they said about Churchill – and I’m not comparing him to Churchill - all his vices and all his virtues are very visible.”

Johnson’s allies were certainly flirting with the idea of him becoming leader after May’s snap election gamble went wrong in 2017.

Speaking publicly for the first time about his own role in the decision to call that election, Davis says he was among those advising it would be a good idea, mainly to help with Brexit talks. Some of his critics have laid the blame at Davis’s door. He is typically robust in response. “You get people trying to say snide comments, saying it’s your fault. I say, well I recommended a general election, I didn’t recommend a crap campaign. 

“At the time the Cabinet was 100% supportive. And actually so was everybody else, nobody had ever lost 20 points in the polls. Local elections more than backed it up. We ran the worst campaign in modern history.”

On the night of the election, after the results came in and the Tories had lost their majority, it’s claimed that May was so spooked that she feared Boris Johnson would try to oust her from No.10. ‘Get me DD!’ she is said to have told aides.

So just what happened that night? “The morning of election day, for no reason, I just had an uneasy feeling. I had been hurtling round the country like a madman. I had gone from being Brexit Secretary to being fullback, Fallon and I were basically the two fullbacks, we would ring each other up and say who’s taking the next problem.

“There was just something eating at me and I couldn’t pin it down. I went to see Fiona [Hill, May’s media advisor] and said I think probably you’ll want me on the radio in the morning. If it’s all a great result fantastic, but I just feel uneasy so you may want me or Fallon on. She said we’ll get you on.”

Davis’ own supporters were urging him to think about the Tory leadership at the time. “I had had calls from people, as you can imagine, saying ‘oh you can take over’, and so on.”

When he arrived from his 4am count in Yorkshire, having flown via helicopter to do the morning media round, Davis arrived to find a ‘chaotic’ Tory operation in London. No media slots had been organised. 

“I went to No.10. She was there with Philip and the chief whip and I sat down and said ‘right you’ve got to stay’,” Davis recalls.

“My opening words were ‘we have not got the result we wanted but we need stability’. When she went out to make a call, I said to Philip ‘does she know how tough this will be?’ He said ‘yes’. That was it.” 

“Every group in any political party has differences, egos and so on. But with Labour voting against the critical size of the voting bloc is quite small, it’s basically a dozen people. The rock-solid core of the ERG is a multiple of that. I’m not even an ERG member. It’s probably 30, 40.” ON THE STRENGTH OF THE TORY REBELS

Now that he’s out of office himself, Davis has plenty to keep him occupied. “I’m equally at home on the backbenches as well as the front benches. Most people in Cabinet are not natural backbenchers because they focused their life on being in Cabinet.”

He has two books lined up, one on ‘In or Out’, another on the future of capitalism that he put on hold when he was appointed to Cabinet. He wants to campaign on the growing global threat of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Another campaign will be for a judge-led inquiry – with immunity from prosecution for British spies involved – into the UK’s role in rendition of terror suspects after 9/11.

At some point in the future, he is even considering a book about his family history. Davis’s father abandoned his mother while she was still pregnant, but he rarely talks about it. In his 20s he tracked the man down, discovering he was a ‘senior civil servant’ from South Wales.

 “I had a sort of ration on knowledge about my history. While my mother was alive I didn’t talk about being the son of a single mum for her it was still a stigma.

“And I don’t talk about my natural father very much in terms of sufficient detail for him to be identified because he had other children. You have always got to think about knock on consequences of what you do.”

Is his natural father still alive? “I don’t actually know. It’s what I would check before I went down that route. You forget sometimes you are the elephant in the room, when you are very well known if you do anything it can have knock on effects, the ripples don’t stop.”

Davis certainly plans to stick around in Westminster for some time yet. His own political mortality doesn’t seem a worry, but he’s getting used to being described as a veteran - “It makes you sanguine,” he says.

But there’s one difference about older age, he says. “The thing I notice is not loss of speed or energy, it’s that you don’t mend so quickly. If you break something it takes much longer.” 

And if Theresa May can’t placate Davis and his colleagues in coming months, it could be a long time before she can heal the Tory party’s wounds over Brexit.

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