David Davis’ Commons performance on Monday might go down as the most inadequate in recent memory, given the gap between his capabilities and the scale of the task ahead of him. After the long, hot months of the summer break, some had expected the Brexit minister to have mastered his brief and to offer some sort of clear idea about how Britain would proceed following the June 23rd vote.
Instead, David offered an aggressive, adversarial statement, which paid lip service to consensus while tonally and rhetorically basking in the still-warm glow of victory. There was no content in the statement itself whatsoever - just the usual empty language about opportunities and an outward-looking nation.
But when he went on to answer questions from MPs, he suddenly veered off script. Perhaps he was suffering the emotional incontinence of political victory. Or perhaps he simply does not have the mental agility to stick to an agreed policy. Either way, it was soon clear Davis was going much further than Theresa May’s carefully formulated statements earlier in the week.
May had pledged “some control” over immigration, with an emphasis on the ‘some’. She had said free movement could not continue “in the way that it has done in the past”. The language is precise and repeated every time she makes these statements. Even Davis managed to stick to it a few times. It has clearly been agreed on. That’s crucial, because the boiler-plate caveats on offer here suggest very strongly that May intends to stay in the single market and try to secure some sort of deal on freedom of movement. As the language implies, she will not be be aiming to get rid of it, but to reform it.
She is not trying to do this because she particularly likes immigration - one gets the sense that she would close the borders entirely if there were no negative economic ramifications. She’s doing it because she knows that leaving the single market would be devastating for Britain. Staying in the single market is the best way to protect working class communities from being savaged by the harsh Asian winds of tariff free, low regulation, laissez faire global trade.
She might well be successful. She might get what Downing Street is currently hoping for - freedom of labour rather than movement, meaning that someone can come on condition of a job offer. There are treaties which might make this possible. Or she might get a rule whereby anyone in the UK who does not get a job within three months can be removed. There are legal precedents which might make this possible. Or she might get a pause in freedom of movement of, say, seven years. Or she could get some sort of combination of these options.
Remarkably, Davis threw all of this careful formulation away. It was “very improbable” Britain would stay in the single market unless there were border controls, he said. He was not remotely on the same page as the prime minister. He tacitly accepted the public insistence of EU officials that no deal can be made on immigration. Bolstering your negotiating partner’s position ahead of talks is a curious strategy for the Brexit secretary to have adopted.
It is now clear that Davis either does not have the discipline to stick to the No.10 script, or that he is intentionally pulling away from May’s position in a bid to force her into a hard Brexit.
It’s not just the single market. His own team do not seem to have any idea what they are doing. Take Stewart Jackson, his parliamentary private secretary. A little while ago, he suggested on Twitter that he would not press for informal talks with the EU on the terms of Article 50 before triggering it.
This is troubling. The main challenge the Brexit team faces is time. The punishing two-year timetable of Article 50 gives the EU member states a massive advantage over the UK. They all need to agree to the deal we come up with. And if they don’t, Britain is the one that suffers the consequences by falling out the EU without a back-up plan in place. These are extremely disadvantageous negotiating positions.
The solution to this problem is to use our one bit of leverage - when we trigger Article 50 - to get Europe to agree informally that negotiations continue beyond two-years if a deal has not been reached, and ideally that a trade deal with the EU can be conducted simultaneously to the divorce settlement. The Brexit team must either do that or commit now to an interim EEA option. Either plan would take away the crushing time-based advantage the other EU member states have over us. Any responsible team acting in the national interest would pursue them.
Of course, you have to convince your European partners to do this. They are under no obligation to. But it’s in no-one’s interest - either politically or economically - for the process to be frenzied and disastrous. With a bit of diplomatic sensitivity, it could be achieved.
Instead, Jackson was on Twitter inventing imaginary legal obstacles to doing this, or insisting that the Europeans would not play ball. It is, again, very worrying. It suggests Davis’ department is lost in the emotional mist of victory and intent on pursuing an ideologically-imposed hard Brexit on the country, without any regard for patient progress or careful planning.
Downing Street have now come out to slap down Davis, suggesting the “improbable” comment was merely his opinion - a frankly incredibly thing given his job title. The early indications are that this public telling off might not be enough,.
Davis started his tenure insisting Liam Fox could secure trade deals with the rest of the world during the Article 50 process, something which was legally and logically impossible. He then concluded those trade deals would represent markets greater than the sum total of those which exist on the earth. After a summer of supposed preparation, he seems to have barely progressed from this original position. Things are unravelling at the Brexit department even faster than we expected.
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk