Hanging on the wall of a disused office in the Department for Exiting the European Union there must be a picture of a David Davis who is getting visibly younger by the day. The real Brexit secretary is on the opposite trajectory. Six months ago he was fit, active and young for his age; now he looks done in. Not done in as in a bit tired. Done in as in completely knackered. On his knees. His eyes have developed huge bags beneath them that not even a skilled makeup artist could conceal, his face has sunk and reddened and he moves more slowly. If not always more deliberately. At this rate he will be a shell by the end of the year. A hollow head for a hollow crown.
Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. Brexit was meant to be the crowning achievement of Davis’s career. A personal and national liberation from all those Brussels bureaucrats who had made his life a living hell for the past 44 years. Not that he could quite remember what it was they had done that was so bad, but he was sure they must have done something simply because they weren’t British.
But then Theresa May messed things up completely by putting him in charge of all the complicated Brexit stuff that he had never really properly understood. To make things worse, with both Liam Fox and Boris Johnson reckoned to be total liabilities by the prime minister, he was always the one sent out to do all the tricky media stuff. So by the time he had spent several hours touring the TV studios and radio stations trying to explain why the threat to let foreigners die if they didn’t do a deal wasn’t really a threat, he was half-asleep by the time he had to present the great repeal bill to the Commons.
“Exciting opportunity ... going forward ... embracing change,” he said in a barely audible monotone. It was one thing to remember Theresa’s advice of accentuating the positives but beyond him to do so as if he meant it. “The great repeal bill will,” he continued, searching frantically for the right words. “Will ... will ... make all EU law UK law.” What happened after that was anyone’s guess. He didn’t have a clue how much EU law was already UK law, what laws the government might want to change, how they would be changed or who would get to do it. But no one would be too interested in those sort of details, surely?
Davis looked horrified when Keir Starmer homed in on precisely those areas. Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary can sometimes be rather awkward at the dispatch box but as a lawyer, today he was in his element. Starmer wanted to make sure no fundamental rights were going to be revoked and that the government wasn’t looking to do away with some laws on the sly without proper parliamentary scrutiny.
“I ask the minister to look again at this,” said Starmer. Davis almost burst into tears. Please no. Anything but that. He’d given it all a quick glance before he had come out and surely that was enough.
“We’ll put things right if we’ve missed anything,” said Davis. “I promise.” Scout’s honour. Though he couldn’t extend that promise to necessarily allowing MPs to have a vote on anything because some of them – he was looking at the SNP now – might try to block it. After all, what was the point of the government making life any more difficult for itself? Things were going to be tricky enough now that article 50 had been triggered and the Germans and French had the upper hand without having to worry about attacks on the home front.
Nick Clegg began by congratulating the Brexit secretary for not pandering to the hardline Eurosceptics in his party. Davis looked concerned. Praise from a committed Europhile was not the response he had been expecting. “I’m delighted to see you have kept the jewels in the EU crown, such as the working time directive. But why, if we are to keep them, are we going to the effort of leaving the EU anyway?” Davis said nothing. All that was well above his pay grade.
A few Eurosceptics woke up at this point and started mumbling about “the ghastly EU” and “a glorious return to parliamentary sovereignty”. Albeit a return without a return to parliamentary democracy. Davis happily acknowledged their wisdom. We were getting rid of all European court of justice legislation, he insisted. Apart from the bits we weren’t, which would be called the British European court of justice legislation. Satisfied everyone was now as confused as him, Davis went for a lie down.