David Spencer is a freelance consultant and writer.
So the new Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union is David Davis. He certainly wasn’t the first name on many people’s lips for the job at the start of the week (credit to Alex Deane for making a stunning call more than a week ago).
I worked with David for a number of years, both when he was Shadow Home Secretary and later when he was a backbencher, which gave me great insight not only into the politician but the man. But it is not from any residual sense of loyalty that I am convinced that he is not only the right man to mastermind the Brexit Strategy, but also the man to bring the Party around our new Prime Minister.
When I started working for David back in 2007, many people warned me that he was ‘a nightmare to work for’, and I arrived on my first day understandably nervous. But nothing could have been further from the truth. For sure, he sets high standards for sure and expects his team to meet them, to work hard, and to be committed and loyal.
But those who threw themselves into their work for him are rewarded with a place in a great team environment with a jovial and entertaining boss who revels in the job, nay the calling, that he loves so much. Such an atmosphere can only be a plus in the long, complex, and no doubt frustrating negotiations that lie ahead for him.
He has a good eye for a team too. When I arrived, Ramesh Chhabra (later George Osborne’s media man through the Coalition years) was his spokesperson, while he later hired Renate Samson, now Chief Executive of Big Brother Watch. His Chief of Staff on my arrival was Dominic Raab, a fiercely talented and driven intellect, who played a prominent role in the Vote Leave campaign, and who, as a former Foreign Office lawyer, should be at the front of the queue to work with Davis in his new department. In pulling together a new department to bring Brexit to fruition, along the lines he has already set out on this site, Davis will need the best people around him. And if anyone can pull that team together, he can.
What really struck me about him throughout my time by his side was his diligent and comprehensive approach to every issue he threw himself into. There are more than a few MPs who will pop a few keywords into Google, check the relevant Wikipedia pages and then stand up in the house attempting to appear an expert.
It quickly became clear to me that Davis is one of Parliament’s most thorough and rigorous thinkers. His most prominent campaign in recent years has been on civil liberties, an issue which is now firmly fixed in the public consciousness, and is a factor in most legislative debates. This is no small part thanks to the work he put in.
But there are many other issues he has weighted into as well. During my time in his office alone there was the Afghanistan conflict, social mobility, and the UK’s complicity in torture, to name but three. Each time a new issue arose he was rigorous in gathering the facts, studying the legislation, meeting key people involved, and reaching a considered conclusion before going public with comments or opinions. Before assuming a political position, he was always sure of his ground.
With the massive challenges he has ahead, I am reassured that the man at the top of the Brexit Department is so thorough, and know that he will expect the same both of his junior ministers and those civil servants tasked with supporting him. At some point soon, attention will doubless be drawn again to his controversial resignation as Shadow Home Secretary, and then as an MP, to fight a by-election to campaign against the erosion of civil liberties by the then Labour government.
This has been interpreted by many as a ‘fit-of-pique’ and a petulant decision but, if Davis is anything, he is fiercely rational, and can never be accused of not looking before he leaps. Prior to his resignation, he had worked relentlessly for months to oppose Labour’s 2008 Counter-Terrorism Bill. He had built a cross-party coalition in the house (two years before everyone else was doing it!) and got the numbers he needed to defeat the Bill. Then, at the last minute, Labour bought off the DUP with a string of financial promises and sneaked the Bill over the line by a handful of votes. Davis had not expected to lose – but this didn’t mean that he hadn’t considered what could be done if he did.
He concluded that the only way to really draw public attention to the impact that this Bill would have on civil liberties was to make a dramatic gesture and a personal sacrifice. Far from being a rash, spur-of-the-moment decision, it was a rational and considered judgement call. And it worked. Civil liberties quickly became front-page news, public opinion turned on its head, and the Counter-Terrorism Bill never made it onto the statute books. There are not many politicians of any colour who would have sufficient courage in their convictions to take such a decision.
I have read in recent hours rumours swirling on social media that Davis, Liam Fox, and Boris Johnson are in place to sell a watered-down Brexit to their own party in exchange for top jobs in the Government. Anyone who believes that does not know the Davis I worked with, and the one who sacrificed perhaps the best years of his career to stand up for what he felt was the right thing. I am in no doubt that he will do the same in negotiations with Europe. As a former Europe Minister, he is familiar with the workings of the EU, and as a seasoned Eurosceptic he will be determined to extract the best possible deal for Britain.
A former senior UK diplomat in Brussels once told me that as Europe Minister, DD had been “bloody difficult to work with” because of his refusal to cow-tow to EU norms and customs, and in his determination not to be blinded by the complexity of Europe, but to understand the system and reach the right conclusions. Given his new role, that comment now brings me great confidence in his ability to deliver the best Brexit for Britain.